Indian Ocean Oil Spill Devastates Marine Life

In May, the Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl container ship caught fire off the coast of Sri Lanka while traveling through the Indian Ocean. The crew was evacuated, and the ship ultimately sank. Over 1,400 containers of toxic chemicals, approximately 80 tons of tiny plastic pellets, and hundreds of tons of fuel were on board. Much of this ended up befouling the Sri Lankan coast in subsequent weeks, causing lasting devastation to the marine environment and local communities.

The Sri Lankan government has confirmed that at least 176 sea turtles, four whales, and 20 dolphins washed ashore as a consequence of the wreck. Dead fish have also washed up with plastic pellets clogging their gills and mouths. A fishing ban was imposed to prevent people from consuming contaminated fish, creating hardship for local artisanal fishing communities. The ports and shipping minister told parliament that the Government Analyst Department and the Veterinary Research Institute were conducting investigations to ascertain the cause and magnitude of the problem, and the country is seeking financial retribution from the ship’s operator. Impacts from the released chemicals—which included nitric acid, methanol, and sodium methoxide—could last decades as they permeate the marine environment and its creatures. The plastic beads will persist much longer.

This comes on the heels of a massive oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea in February that caused what was described as one of the worst ecological disasters in Israel’s history, as thick tar from that spill spread over most of the Israeli coastline and into southern Lebanon. (See AWI Quarterly, summer 2021.)

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