Flaming Shipwreck Disaster Takes Toll on Annual Sea Turtle Migration

by Jon D. B.

Sri Lanka environmentalists are calling it the “worst ecological disaster in the nation’s history,” and sea turtles’ annual migration got caught in the middle.

Of the seven extant species of sea turtle left, six are listed as endangered or threatened by extinction. Each species found in Sri Lanka is part of their National Red List, marking them as endangered. It’s no secret that humanity is directly responsible for this near-disappearance, either. So when a horrific fire sank an X-Press Feeders container ship off the coast of Sri Lanka, it became the latest human-dealt blow to an already suffering marine staple.

All in all, over four hundred dead sea turtles – many with burnt, corroding shells – are said to have washed up on the country’s shores. A “dozen” dead dolphins are among them, too. Literal tons of plastic pellets and melting fiberglass now litter 50 miles of the once pristine Sri Lankan beach.

And it’s all due to a single shipping vessel’s mishap. CBS News reports the country’s environmentalists are citing the catastrophe as the “worst ecological disaster in the nation’s history.”

Not only for the long-reaching damage done to oceans, but because the polluting explosion hit at the height of sea turtle migration.

The Associated Press notes that 81 of the X-Press Feeders containers contained toxic chemicals. Bangladesh is suing the company over the disaster for $40 million.

But what made these sea turtles so horribly vulnerable to the fallout? Outside of it taking place directly within their habitat. Let’s take a look.

Sri Lanka is Vital to Sea Turtle Migration and Survival

The South Asian island country of Sri Lanka is ancient habitat to five of the seven marine turtle species. They are:

  • Green turtle (Chelonia mydas)
  • Olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea)
  • Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata)
  • Loggerhead (Caretta caretta)
  • Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea)

Of these species, the first two account for almost the entire nesting population of turtles in Sri Lanka. A whopping 68% are green turtles, with 30% being olive ridleys, cites the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA).

And this time of year, hundreds more of these species flock to Sri Lanka as part of their annual migration. The sea turtles do so in order to reach their breeding grounds on the country’s coast. Just as the turtles began passing through the waters off the coast, the X-Press Feeders disaster struck late May, decimating their numbers. The Singapore-flag bearing X-Press Pearl, burning and leaking for 12 days, would claim over 400 sea turtles total.

“Provisionally, we can say that these deaths were caused by two methods — one is due to burns from the heat and secondly due to chemicals. These are obvious,” says Anil Jasinghe, Sri Lanka’s secretary of the environment ministry, to CBS News.

Hunting and fishing, too, wreak havoc on the species, but nothing close to these numbers. World conservationists now turn to the Turtle Conservation Project (TCP) of Sri Lanka can help these precious species bounce back. We can only hope.