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Rogue fertiliser ship from China flouts orders, returns to Sri Lankan waters under new name

Fertiliser found contaminated with bacteria (Photo: Chinese embassy Twitter)

Chinese ship Hippo Spirit which had been told to leave by Colombo for bringing contaminated organic fertiliser to Sri Lanka seems to have come back to Sri Lankan waters under another name—Seiyo Explorer.

Hippo Spirit had left China with 20,000 metric tonnes of fertiliser which was found to be contaminated with hazardous bacteria. After two tests, the Sri Lankan government decided to suspend the imports of the fertiliser from China, citing threat to the country's soil and crops.

News First website quotes Dr Ajantha De Silva, the DG of the Department of Agriculture as saying: "We did not grant the bulk permit to import stocks of the fertilizer. So without that permit, we cannot accept this ship even if it comes here. There are no provisions under the Plant quarantine act for us to accept this ship”.

China is on the defensive over the export of the contaminated fertiliser. Global Times, the Chinese government-managed newspaper quoted Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin as saying: "at the moment, China and Sri Lanka are working on the issue through communication and coordination". 

Sri Lanka does not seem to be in any mood to relent.

After the rejection of the fertiliser, the ship turned to Singapore and anchored at Malacca Strait. The ship's automatic identification system was deactivated at the Malacca Strait. Reportedly, the ship did not return to China with the contaminated fertiliser.

Now Sri Lankan authorities find that a Chinese ship under the name Seiyo Explorer is in Sri Lankan waters, parked in the south-east near the China-controlled Hambantota port.

The Sri Lankan media reports that despite the change in the name from Hippo Spirit to Seiyo Explorer, the vessel was traced by a ship-tracking website, which says that both the ships appear to have the same International Maritime Organization (IMO) number–9135523.

The IMO ship identification number is a unique seven-digit number that remains unchanged through a vessel’s lifetime irrespective of change of ownership or country.

According to Pew Trusts, a UK-based company, IHS Maritime & Trade, has been assigned the responsibility of assigning IMO numbers to ships. Pew Trusts says: "The unique seven-digit vessel number the company issues to each vessel, preceded by the letters IMO, stays with it until it is scrapped and never changes, regardless of the ship’s owner, country of registration or name".

However, in a classic case of arm-twisting by Chinese fertiliser manufacturer, Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group Co, it sent the ship back to Sri Lanka. Meanwhile the Chinese embassy in Colombo is mounting pressure on Sri Lankan authorities to accept the contaminated fertiliser.

After the Sri Lankan authorities found the ship anchored off the coast of Weligama, 61 nautical miles from Sri Lanka, the Colombo Port Harbour Master issued instructions to not allow the Chinese fertiliser ship to enter any of the ports in the island nation, says the Colombo Page website.

With mounting pressure from China, Sri Lanka is now monitoring the ship carefully.