Silent Killer of Marine Life


By Eunice Ruth

Sri Lanka’s location in the Indian Ocean places it in the middle of global trade networks, which increases trade activities along with maritime disasters.

As a result, the ocean bed around Sri Lanka is scattered with numerous shipwrecks, which can be dated back to ancient times to the modern period.  However, shipwrecks have become home to sea creatures, corals and others. Different types of ships cause different kinds of pollution. Also, different circumstances determine the amount of pollution caused at different times. Shipwrecks, invariably, attract a great deal of attention due to the drama, tragedy and mystery associated with their demise, creating much publicity.

The island is bestowed with a rich marine and coastal environment. According to Coast Conservation and Coastal Resource Management Department, 2021, the coastal and marine ecosystem ranges for a distance of 1,680 km along the coast and extends from the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which includes estuaries and lagoons (214,522 ha), mangroves (11,656ha), seagrass beds (37,137ha) salt marshes (27,520 ha), coral reefs, and large extents of beaches including barrier beaches, spits (5,731ha), and sand dunes (10,363 ha).


The first recorded shipwreck in Sri Lanka was in 1702. However, the first shipwreck was discovered in 1960 and it has been named as ‘Silver coin wreck’.  A total of 20 major maritime adversities (excluding ship strikes) have occurred in Sri Lanka within a period of 27 years, from 1994 to 2021.More than 50 per cent of the incidents have occurred in the last five years. This can be attributed to increasing maritime shipping trends. 

Out of the 20 incidents, 12 of them involved an oil spillage and this proves that Sri Lanka is highly vulnerable to oil spills. However, the large numbers of oil tankers that move through Sri Lankan waters were not the cause of all these spills. 11 out of the 12 spills resulted from other sources. Six incidents occurred due to fuel leaks from ships carrying cargo other than oil when meeting with adversity. Four incidents resulted from the leakage of oil-carrying pipelines belonging to CPC and CPSTL and were reported from the Thaldiyawatte, Dikovita area within the span of three years, from 2015 to 2018. Of the 12 major incidents with spills, only 11 had information available on the amount or at least the source and nature of the spill. Of these 11 spills, only two can be classified as Tier III spills. Even so, the risk of an oil spill cannot be taken lightly as it will cause massive impacts. In addition, all marine animals including microorganisms are greatly affected due to wrecks. 


Arjan Rajasuriya, Lanka Sub-Aqua Club Marine and Coastal Expert International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Sri Lanka country office, said that shipwrecks have been identified in several parts of the country in the past few years and it has posed several major threats to human and the environment. 

Old and low quality of the pipelines are the major reasons for the pipeline leakage and improper maintenance and monitoring also a reason for it. The adverse consequences of an oil spill for a nation whose economy depends a lot on tourism, which in turn thrives on its rich marine and coastal resources. 

In addition, ships sinks due to various reasons such as  navigation and other human errors,bad design or failure of the ship’s gear, instability caused by bad design or incorrectly stored cargo, mutiny, sabotage, wars or piracy, deliberate sinking, fire and bad weather.

Government Intervention 

Sri Lanka is signatory to international conventions on the protection of biodiversity and sustainable use of natural resources. Convention on biological diversity and sustainable development goals are two major obligations which the Sri Lankan Government should fulfil. 

Later, the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) took an interest in the protection of shipwrecks in the early 1980s. NARA established an Inter-ministerial Committee on Shipwrecks and Underwater Cultural Heritage in 1986. The Director of the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology convened a meeting in 1988 with all stakeholders to prepare an action plan to safeguard the wrecks. Also, the Cabinet appointed an Inter-ministerial Committee on Wrecks (IMCW) in 1986. Under that, a legal sub-committee was appointed to identify the threats including commercial salvage, commercial trawling/fishing, natural seabed and wreck erosion, and looting by treasure hunters.

The IMCW has recommended several measures which need to be followed before and after a marine disaster. After a shipwreck, it is important to engage all stakeholders in discussions prior to disposing wrecks for scrap metal and all wrecks should be protected, and they should be removed only if they are a threat to shipping and other maritime activities. A thorough study must be conducted to assess their fisheries / tourism potential, archaeological value, current status, contribution to the enhancement of marine biodiversity and economic value for fisheries and tourism. All shipwrecks should be given adequate legal protection and local authorities should not be entrusted with the responsibility of granting permission to salvage wrecks. The value of shipwrecks should be publicised through popular media channels to garner the support of the public for their protection.

According to the research report of Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), ‘Science, Politics, and Corruption of the X-Press Pearl Ship Accident’, Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) is responsible for managing the maritime disaster under Marine Pollution Prevention Act, No. 35 of 2008 by formulating and executing a scheme of work for the prevention, reduction, control and management of pollution arising out of ship -based activity and shore based maritime related activity, in the territorial waters of Sri Lanka or any other maritime zone, its fore-shore and the coastal zone of Sri Lanka and to take measures to manage, safeguard and preserve the territorial waters of Sri Lanka or any other maritime zone, it’s fore-shore and the coastal zone of Sri Lanka from any pollution caused by any oil, harmful substance or any other pollutant and other responsibilities.

Future implementations 

The need for an effective monitoring system of vessels entering and leaving Sri Lankan waters seems vital considering the large ship density and amount of maritime trade that passes through. Easy access, by authorities, to the general information of vessels passing through may be crucial to effectively mitigate possible shipping adversities using the appropriate measures. Such information can include cargo details such as cargo type, speed, amount of fuel, vessel dimensions and details of the crew. 

Other nations in the region such as Singapore which has a similar density of marine traffic have a Chemical Contingency Plan. It was developed as a supplement to their Marine Emergency Action Procedure and includes that all chemical tankers coming to Singapore need to provide a report of the chemical cargo on-board beforehand (IIMS, 2014; ITOPF Limited, 2018). 

With the high risk of an oil spill in Sri Lankan waters, such strategies being added to the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCOP) will help Sri Lanka be prepared to minimise the environmental impact, should such a situation arise in the future. With increasing maritime traffic, frequencies of ship strikes are also expected to increase, especially in the southern waters where the main shipping route passes through. This increases the threat to the unique population of blue whales in our waters as well as other cetaceans. Measures such as reduction of vessel speeds and noise in ecologically sensitive and protected areas can help minimise harm to this mega fauna and marine life in general. With the density of ships passing through our waters expected to increase further, if Sri Lanka develops proactive strategies for maritime adversities, in terms of resources, monitoring, and policy, rather than relying on reactive solutions, Sri Lanka would be able to successfully mitigate them-protecting our seas and sustaining the millions of livelihoods that depend upon them and ensuring a sustainable maritime industry that will aid Sri Lanka to grow into a prime maritime hub and even extend our support and services to regional adversities.

Shipwrecks need to be prevented in order to protect and save valuable underwater bodies, as they play a major role in supporting the livelihood of many people.