The Containerized Shipping Industry and the Phenomenon of Containers Lost at Sea


Oren T. Frey, Andrew P. DeVogelaere, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

photo montage of sea life

During a transit from San Francisco Bay to the Port of Los Angeles on February 26, 2004, the M/V Med Taipei encountered a storm and lost 15 forty-foot shipping containers in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS), and another nine south of the Sanctuary. One of these containers was discovered by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) on June 9, 2004 on Smooth Ridge at a depth of 1,281 meters, 17.5 nm NW of Point Pinos. This was not an isolated incident. Containerized maritime trade grew eight-fold from 1985 to 2007, and worldwide there are now approximately 5 to 6 million containers in transit at any given moment. Thousands of shipping containers are lost at sea every year, often due to the nexus of rough seas, inadequate or faulty securing mechanisms, and failure to weigh all containers at the time of loading. On March 8-10, 2011, we conducted a research expedition to the container on Smooth Ridge using MBARI's R/V Western Flyer. The cruise aimed to assess the container's current condition, describe habitat and ecosystem impacts, and to bring public attention to this deep-sea phenomenon that has been increasing with economic globalization. Given the potentially severe ecological, economic, and navigational safety consequences associated with container loss, the issue has led to a range of responses from industry and the consideration of additional preventative measures at the international level.

Key Words:

Containerization, container loss, shipping, ecological impacts, deep-sea research, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, MBNMS, continental shelf, marine debris