Sri Lanka Issues Fishing Ban Along Coast Amid Fears of Chemical Leak from Sinking Ship

Sri Lanka authorities imposed a fishing ban along about 50 miles of the coast after a container ship carrying chemicals caught on fire, leading to fears of pollution and a marine environmental disaster.

The ship began to sink on Wednesday off Sri Lanka's main port, and salvage experts attempted to tow the ship to deeper waters. X-Press Feeders, operators of the container ship MV X-Press Pearl said while experts were able to attach a tow line, "efforts to move the ship to deeper waters have failed."

There are fears of a leak from the ship's fuel tanks if it sinks, which would lead to "a terrible environmental disaster," environmentalist Ajantha Perera said.

"All these would mix with the sea water and would destroy the marine environment and would have an adverse impact on the fishing industry," Perera said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Sri Lanka Ship
A tugboat, center, from the Dutch salvage firm SMIT tows the MV X-Press Pearl, left, away from the coast of Colombo on June 2, following Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's order to move the ship to deeper water to prevent a bigger environmental disaster. Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP via Getty Images

"The ship's aft portion is now touching bottom at a depth of 21 meters (70 feet)," while the forward area remains afloat with smoke coming out of two cargo holds, X-Press Feeders said in a statement.

Navy spokesperson Indika de Silva said the ship could cause severe pollution if it sinks at its current location off the port of Colombo.

The fire erupted on May 20 when the ship was anchored about 9.5 nautical miles northwest of Colombo and waiting to enter the port.

The navy believes the blaze was caused by the chemicals being transported on the Singapore-flagged vessel. It was carrying 1,486 containers, including 25 tons of nitric acid and other chemicals that were loaded at the port of Hazira, India, on May 15.

The blaze has destroyed most of the ship's cargo. Some containers tumbled into the sea, polluting surrounding waters and a long stretch of the island nation's famed beaches.

Perera said the ship is believed to have been carrying 81 containers of hazardous goods and about 400 containers containing oil.

Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor of oceanography at the University of Western Australia, said the ship was carrying 78 tons of plastic pallets called nurdles, a raw material used to make plastic bags.

Writing on his Facebook page, he said the incident had released "potentially close to 3 billion nurdles" into the ocean that are washing up on beaches.

He said the nurdles "will persist in the marine environment forever as they are not biodegradable."

Sri Lankan police are probing the fire, and a court in Colombo on Tuesday banned the captain, the engineer and the assistant engineer from leaving the country. The government has said it will take legal action against the owners of the ship to claim compensation.

The vessel's 25-member crew was evacuated last week after an explosion. They include Philippine, Chinese, Indian and Russian nationals.

Sri Lanka ship sinking
The MV X-Press Pearl at Kapungoda sinks where it is anchored off Colombo port, Sri Lanka, on June 2. Salvage experts were attempting to tow the fire-stricken container ship that had been loaded with chemicals into the deep sea as the vessel started to sink Wednesday. Sri Lanka authorities imposed a fishing ban of about 50 miles after the ship caught fire. Sri Lanka Air Force via AP