Lost Cargo Containers

Cargo insurance folks like me, and those quoting us, cite the number 10,000 containers a year are lost overboard from ocean going container ships. Of course we would. We sell cargo insurance for ocean, ground, and air cargo shipments. It is in our best interests to present the highest number named out there for container losses at sea.

On the other hand ‘The World Shipping Council’, and those quoting them, state the 10,000 number is grossly overstated and the number is more around 733 per year on average for 2014, 2015 and 2016. Of course they would. The World Shipping Council is mostly made up of 26 members who are in fact ocean carriers. It would be bad form to admit your industry drops 10,000 containers a year in the sea and there is no requirement for lines to report the number lost.

Pinning down an accurate number is almost impossible due to the bulk of the data being provided is by organizations with a clear interest in driving their own message to the public. Although according to ‘Ocean Navigators’ in 2013 http://www.oceannavigator.com/March-April-2013/A-legendary-offshore-danger/ Through Transport Club (TT Club) who insures 15 of the 20 top container lines estimates around 2000 containers under their watch take a dive each year.  Of all the information I found on the subject I honed in on TT Club’s number.  I know the organization and people in it and trust them both. Using TT Club’s estimate then considering the 5 major lines TT Club doesn’t insure, plus the bevy of ocean carriers not considered ‘major carriers’ such as Crowley Marine, Tote Marine, Matson and many more, it is easy to assume 4,000 to 5,000 hit the drink every year as a reasonable estimate.

These thoughts lead me to wonder what happens to lost containers? Some containers sink straight away. Others float around for a month or two before slowly sinking to the bottom of the sea. Refrigerated containers float even longer. Because containers can sink slowly it creates a clear hazard of ocean vessels hitting the containers at, or just below, the waters surface.  Large ocean vessels don’t have to worry so much as they can withstand hitting a container without causing threatening damage to their bow.  However, smaller crafts and fishing boats can be threatened with collision with ocean containers that could ruin their day. The container shipping industry considers the issue a negligible problem. Measured against the total number of containers transported each year lost at sea containers only represent a minuscule percentage of the whole. Moreover there isn’t a gigantic economic reason to spend money to solve the problem. Only the most spectacular losses are mentioned in the media. Then one or more of the Kardashian clan takes their clothes off and shipping losses at sea are soon forgotten.

Now that we have a number of lost containers as good as anyone’s guess, what’s in those containers? The answer is everything. Everything in those containers lost at sea becomes a part of our oceans ecosystem.  Over the years of insuring cargo it’s hard to think of something we have not insured by issuing cargo insurance certificates.  Of course there are some things we refuse to insure like cash, gold bars, jewelry, and red hot plutonium. Although the list of things we do issue a cargo insurance certificates for is very broad indeed. Look around you right now. Unless you are in the middle of a forest or desert, chances are a good amount of what you see, or a portion of it, was ocean cargo at one time including the device you are reading this article on right now.

Some containers joining the ocean eco system party are a welcome addition to the ocean floor. Non-hazardous commodities that bio degrade well like normal paper and cardboard products go unnoticed by Mother Nature and the containers themselves become habitat for plants and sea creatures. It’s other commodities including hazardous materials, plastics, fuels, and chemicals that should give us concern. While the threat isn’t as flashy as vessel emissions, wildlife collisions, and big oil spills, the commodities added to our oceans via lost containers not only count, they can grow legs and travel quite far to spread the joy of contamination

One of the best examples of how pollution can travel was products marketed by ‘The First Years, Inc.’ of Avon, MA who sells products designed for children.  In 1992 The First Years, Inc. ordered a container load of yellow rubber ducks, red beavers, blue turtles and green frogs from the factory in China. The order was loaded into a container in Hong Kong and set sail for the USA on the container vessel ‘Ever Laurel’.  During a storm in the North Pacific the Ever Laurel dumped its container load of toys into the Pacific and 28,000 yellow rubber duckies were set free to roam the oceans never making it to the waiting children. Our youngest, now 32 years old, still checks the mailbox every day for his. No mention was made in the material I read in regard to the beavers, frogs, and turtles other than they existed.

The flotilla of newly freed rubber ducks began their journey navigating the world’s oceans.  Rubber ducks have been washed ashore in Hawaii, South America, the Pacific Northwest, and a portion of poor duckies have been found frozen in the Arctic Ice. Some even made it to the Atlantic Ocean and have been found as far as Scotland and Newfoundland. Like all things odd, the duckies even attracted devoted followers who christened the rubber duckies the “Friendly Floatees”.

Of the Friendly Floatees the most famous 2,000 still circulate in the currents of the North Pacific Gyre which is a vortex of currents that stretch between Japan, southeast Alaska, and the Aleutian Islands which is the long tail of islands that trail off Alaska to the southwest into the Pacific. As a matter of fact the Friendly Floatees helped to better recognize the North Pacific Gyre because they were something identifiable scientists could track. Even though scientists knew the vortex existed, since one piece of trash looks very much like another, they didn’t know just how long it took for trash to complete a circuit. Because of the rubber duckies now they know.  It takes about three years.

The North Pacific Vortex has become a floating trash heap of stuff we dump into the sea. Some of the trash got there the same way the Friendly Floatees did while some is out right irresponsible dumping. There are eleven similar vortexes in the world’s oceans all circulating trash or a potential to do so. One thing the rubber duckies have shown is our neighbor’s problem is indeed our problem.

he average life expectancy of a person in the USA is 78.74 years and according to the New York Times lives an average of 18 miles away from their Mother with only 20% living more than an hours’ drive from their parents. The life expectancy of a plastic bottle in the ocean is up to 450 years (According to Columbia University) and as the rubber ducks taught us can travel the globe in ocean currents. The time has long passed that we should all pay attention to what happens to our trash and what we produce. The ocean’s currents can move lost cargo and trash, sometimes dangerous stuff for wildlife as well as humans, just about anywhere on the planet and not all of it is adorable children’s toys with a fan club.