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Sri Lankan Marine Biologist Explains The Environmental Repercussions Of Burning Barge

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This year, cargo ships have been in the news for the wrong reasons - global supply shortages, getting stuck in the Suez Canal and now a potential environmental disaster. A giant barge anchored off the coast of Sri Lanka caught fire and burned for close to two weeks. Now the MV X-Press Pearl is sinking, and tons of plastic pellets it was carrying have been washing up with dead fish and sea turtles. Officials worry that oil and other toxic chemicals on board may also leak. Marine biologist Asha de Vos joins us now from Sri Lanka to talk about the potential impact. Thank you for being with us.

ASHA DE VOS: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: So I know you were just on the coast a couple of days ago. Tell us about what you saw.

DE VOS: Yeah, absolutely. So I actually went out to visit the worst-hit beach, which is the one that's directly opposite where the ship fire occurred. And, you know, it's a beach that I've been to many times before. It's that idyllic tropical beach with the palm trees and the beautiful sand and - you know, just stunning beaches. But, of course, when I went this time, it was just a beach covered in these white pellets. And, you know, the saddest part is, I think, that there was so many pellets around, but this was after the Navy personnel had been cleaning for days on end. Every time they, you know, filled bags and took them inland, you know, amongst all these other thousands of bags, another wave would wash in with more pellets. So it just seemed so unending, you know? And it was - to me, it was really sad to see.

SHAPIRO: And marine life, of course, are eating these pellets. Is there a sense of the scale of the disaster, particularly as the fire subsides and the ship begins to sink?

DE VOS: Yeah. So, you know, I think right now we're really grateful that we haven't had an oil spill yet. And I think we're just really hopeful that that doesn't happen. But, you know, obviously, the immediate concern in the early days was the chemicals that were on board. But the understanding is that they would have burned or if they washed into the water, they could dissolve. So the impact of chemicals is mostly localized and short term.

But these plastic pellets - you know, they're, like, these little buoyant microplastics that move around very easily with the currents and the wind and the waves. And we found them all along the west coast, down the south coast, now starting to, you know, move up the north coast. So, you know, there are concerns about ingestion by species. That's more than likely going to happen. But also, there are livelihood impacts. Fishermen can't go out to fish at the moment. These beaches are really quite important to our tourism industry. So far-reaching impacts, for sure.

SHAPIRO: You describe these as microplastics. Are they the sort of thing that people can clean up, or in some cases, are they just too small for that?

DE VOS: Microplastics are typically anything less than 5 millimeters. And so here, you know, they're still visible. They are clean - you can clean them up. You can pick them up. Obviously, they're the same size of grains of sand, so that makes it a little bit tricky. But the thing is right now they're visible, right? Like, that's what the shock is. When you see the photographs, you see these mounds of these plastic pellets. But what will happen in time is that with the wind and wave action and UV radiation, these will start to break into smaller and smaller particles. And they'll still be there, but they'll just be less visible, which - that's when it starts to become really difficult to clean them up.

SHAPIRO: That's marine biologist Asha de Vos speaking with us from Sri Lanka. Thank you very much.

DE VOS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "SINCE YOU ASKED KINDLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.