Monday Reads: The Lost Shipping Container Edition

A sunken steel behemoth provides refuge and life ... or not?

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You know those humongous shipping containers that traverse the world in smog polluting ships?

Shipping containers, packed full o’ goodies. (Dorothy / Flickr)

Yeah, those. Guess how many go overboard every year. A couple dozen? A few hundred? Try 10,000. Whether it’s due to storms, careless stowing, or an obesity of fellow cargo, these lost containers evidently decided at some point that the great blue yonder was a far better cry than for whatever port they were destined, and took a lurch into watery oblivion.

Most of us, if we dropped something, we would go back and pick it up. That item belongs to us and we’re responsible for it; and frankly, who wants to be a litterbug?

Apparently, the shipping industry does. Once the wayward containers jump overboard, ship and cargo part ways, blithely continuing on their diverging paths … until the adventurous cargo abruptly stops—at the bottom of the sea. Covered by insurance, shipping companies apparently have little incentive to retrieve their wayward charges. And so, year after year, ten thousand or so more containers join the previous ten thousand. And so on.

Seven years ago, a team from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute surveying a marine sanctuary sea floor off the coast of Northern California discovered, amidst miles of flat mud and teeny benthic sea creatures, one thing that was not like the others: a giant shipping container.

Fortunately for them, the shipping container—resting there for only a few months—was still proudly displaying its serial number, allowing the scientists to track down the offending vessel. It turns out it really is illegal to just dump things in a marine sanctuary and skedaddle off, and the shipping company paid a record $3.25 million settlement, funds which will go to restore habitat and investigate the shipping container’s effects on the ecosystem.

This year, MBARI returned to the scene of the crime with Doc Ricketts (a robotic submarine) to see if things have changed. And how they have. Unsurprisingly, a diverse array of sea life has been attracted to the shelter that the still-intact container provides—some for breeding, and some for the fine dining opportunities offered by the breeding. Dr. Andrew DeVogelaere of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, told the BBC:

" … you’ve dropped this hard substratum, this container, and on that you’ll see other species like Neptunia, a large whelk [sea snail] that lays its eggs on the container, and it also seems some large crabs and octopus then move in and are feeding on the whelk."

This all sounds great, right? Encouraging life where there previously seemed to be so little? Unfortunately, no. Dr. DeVogelaere explained how the shipping containers, acting as “stepping stones,” could facilitate the spread of invasive species across what previously were uncrossable expanses. And most importantly:

“They’re going to be sitting in the bottom of the ocean for hundreds if not thousands of years, and building up through time … What concerns me is that we might be changing this ecology before we even understand it.”

Sound like a familiar concern? The enormous data gaps Earthjustice cautions on regarding the basic biology of Arctic wildlife amidst threats of growing industrial development certainly springs to mind.

Apart from the very presence of the shipping containers, their contents are no less of a concern—an estimated 10% of the lost containers were carrying household and industrial chemicals. This container in question wasn’t rated as toxic, but its contents aren’t exactly native to the sea: over one thousand steel-belted tires.

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Shirley undertakes sous chef duties on Earthjustice’s website, serving up interactive online features for our advocacy campaign and litigation work.