Blue Justice Alert: X-Press Pearl disaster closer to the pearl of Indian Ocean

A 'Blue Justice Alert' story*

Written By Fazeeha Azmi

On the 20th of May 2021, the Sri Lankan West coast witnessed the worst ecological disaster to have occurred in Sri Lankan waters in its history. The significant damage caused by the fire on X-Press Pearl vessel, which had 1,486 containers carrying tonnes of polythene, plastics and chemicals has gravely endangered the marine ecosystem in the Sri Lankan waters. Although the Sri Lankan government attempted to control the fire, it did not have the technical capacity to handle the disaster on time.

According to the Negombo district fisheries office, nearly 4,300 fishing families, including 10,000 registered fishers, are living in the affected areas. However, in the whole West coast, more than 10,000 small-scale fishing families who are directly involved in fishing have lost their livelihoods because of the incident. Several others who were involved in dry fish making and net mending have also been affected. The fishing communities in the affected areas of the West coast were practising near shore, off shore and lagoon fishing. Following the disaster, these fishers were not allowed to carry out their daily fishing activities along the nearly 80 km long stretch of the coast, as the government declared suspension of fishing activities on the 22nd of May. Currently, the fishers and those depending on fisheries related industry are experiencing an unprecedented loss due to this disaster.

Although the ban on fishing is now lifted, the fishers are encountering numerous challenges in continuing their livelihoods. When the government lifted the ban and allowed fishing, fishers resumed their work. However, many fishers reported that chunks of cotton-like substances released from the containers damaged their nets, a damage estimated to be worth a couple of millions of LKR (1 USD: 200 LKR).  Adding to this, as Sri Lankans have already started to reduce the consumption of fish due to the fear of chemical contamination, most of the fishers struggle to sell their catch. The disaster is an additional blow to the fishing community that is already battered by the COVID-19.

In response to this, fishers are demanding a compensation for the losses incurred. The government has decided to grant the affected fishers a meagre monthly allowance of 5000 LKR. For the small-scale fishers who have borrowed money from money lenders and immediate social networks to run their business, the compensation is hardly enough to repay their loans and feed their families. The long-term impacts of this disaster will create many challenges to the fishing community in the West coast, and these need to be closely scrutinized by the scientific community.

Sri Lanka will be facing extreme environmental impacts of this disaster in the years to come. The total loss to the ecosystem is yet to be estimated. The losses faced by the small-scale fishers and several other related economies have not yet been fully accounted for.  The government has taken measures to fix the immediate repercussion of this disaster on the fishing community; however, the sustainability of their livelihoods has come under a threat. While this disaster is grabbing considerable attention from environmental perspectives, I strongly urge that equal attention should be paid to the affected small-scale fishing communities. I want to draw the attention of the global community at the World Small-Scale Fisheries Congress (WSFC) and in the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture (IYAFA), both taking place in 2022, to make the affected small-scale fishers’ voices heard. It is imperative that we mobilize the local and global community and find ways to assist the affected small-scale fishers.

Picture 1: Accessed June 28th 2021



Fazeeha Azmi

is a senior lecturer in the Department of Geography, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. Her research interests include poverty and livelihood changes, gender and migration, internal displacement and post war development in Sri Lanka. She has published journal articles and book chapters on small-scale fishers, gender, migration, youth and forced displacement in Sri Lanka.

*Contribute your Blue Justice Alert Story!

We are inviting small-scale fishers and the wider small-scale fisheries community to send short stories depicting current challenges affecting small-scale fisheries, with a particular focus on social injustice and inequity issues. These stories will be posted online as part of the TBTI newest project 'Blue Justice Alert: An Interactive Platform for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries’.