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Resource Issues: Lost Shipping Containers

An Expanding Issue, Broader Implications

Most of the products we buy travel long distances around the world in cargo containers stacked on ships. Approximately 200 million container trips occur every year with 5 - 6 million containers in transit at any given moment. While container ship capacity has grown tremendously in the past two decades, safety protocols and securing methods have not been able to keep up and growing time demands placed on the shipping industry make it difficult to balance safety and efficiency. With so much container traffic, as many as 10,000 containers fall from ships each year. Containers are usually lost in rough seas or during storms and can be attributed to increased stacking height, low freeboard, contents improperly loaded, containers in poor condition, faulty connections between containers, oversized containers, containers loaded far from amidships, mis-declared container weights, failure to adapt course to weather conditions, and ships crews unaware of dangerous conditions.

Container losses not only represent a tremendous waste of manufacturing effort, energy and money, but also aggravate the impacts of marine debris as contents may take centuries to degrade and may release hazardous and toxic materials into the environment. Furthermore, as lost containers get scattered along international shipping routes, they can form stepping stones of hard surfaces between harbors (along extensive areas of soft seafloor habitats) potentially disturbing local ecological interactions, influencing recruitment and migration patterns of species, and conceivably favoring the expansion of invasive species distribution. More research is required in order to confidently state the extent of the environmental impact derived from shipping container losses in the vast majority of the deep sea that is still largely unexplored.

Shipping Routes Through MBNMS

The Port of Oakland is the 4th busiest container port in the U.S., and draws much of the container ship traffic that passes through MBNMS. Traffic routes for cargo ships passing through MBNMS have been recommended in order to minimize the risk to marine and coastal wildlife. Container ships following these recommended tracks travel 15 nm off Point Sur and 12.7 nm off Pigeon Point when heading north, and 20 nm off Point Sur and 16 nm off Pigeon Point when heading south. Some conservation groups are campaigning for establishing mandatory, rather than recommended, shipping tracks, in order to reduce threats to sanctuary resources. Several efforts have been made to plot vessel traffic transiting the California coast ( These data products can give us an idea of the intensity of container ship traffic passing through the MBNMS.

Lost Shipping Containers in the MBNMS

To date there have been confirmed lost shipping containers within the MBNMS. The most notable is from the Med Taipei ( a ship that lost 15 steel containers shortly before 1:00 am on February 24, 2004. This project is partially funded by the "Restoration Plan for the M/V Med Taipei ISO Container Discharge Incident Fund." This is one of six restoration activities that are currently being implemented as part of the natural resource settlement plan.  The loss of 15 intermodal cargo containers resulted in direct habitat impact and the projects will compensate for their continued presence and impact on the seafloor within the sanctuary.

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Reviewed: September 08, 2023
Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service

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