Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Estimates of Shipping Containers Lost At Sea are Easy to Conjure Up - but what are the Facts?

Study Attempts to Reveal Accurate Statistics for Boxes Overboard
Shipping News Feature

WORLDWIDE – Proper packing, stowage and securing of shipping containers is of course of prime importance to the safety of a container ship, its cargo and its crew, and to shore-based workers and equipment without even considering the environment. Even with proper packing of the cargo into the container, accurate container weight declaration, and correct stowage and securing aboard ship, a number of factors ranging from severe weather and rough seas to more catastrophic and rare, but increasingly prevalent events like ship groundings, structural failures, or collisions can result in containers being lost at sea.

Few things have the potential to cause the havoc that a partially sunken container has when it hovers unseen, sometimes for years on end, just waiting for a ship to collide with it, possibly dripping toxic matter over a vast area. In an effort to gain greater clarity on the issue, the World Shipping Council (WSC) undertook a second survey of its member companies to obtain a more updated and accurate estimate of the number of containers lost at sea on an annual basis, as a follow-up to its 2011 findings.

The survey of the years 2011, 2012 and 2013 estimates that there were approximately 733 containers lost at sea on average for each of these three years, not counting catastrophic events. When one includes catastrophic losses (as defined above) during these years, the average annual loss for the period was approximately 2,683 containers.

This larger number is due primarily to two factors: the complete loss in 2013 of the MOL Comfort in the Indian Ocean and all of the 4,293 containers on board – the worst containership loss in history; and, in 2011, the grounding and loss of the M/V Rena off New Zealand, which resulted in a loss overboard of roughly 900 containers. These incidents involved complete and total vessel losses.

Combining the results of the two WSC surveys over the six year period from 2008 to 2013, the WSC estimates that there were on average 546 containers lost at sea each year, not counting catastrophic events, and on average a total of 1,679 containers lost at sea each year if the catastrophic events are included.

The data demonstrates that container losses in any particular year can vary quite substantially based on differences in weather and based on the extent to which there may be one or more catastrophic vessel losses. For example, in 2011 (the year of the loss of the Rena) there was a total annual loss of 1,514 containers. In 2012, there was a total loss of 958 containers. In 2013, there was a total loss of 5,578 containers – 77% of which occurred with the sinking of the MOL Comfort in the Indian Ocean.

The WSC said that obtaining an accurate assessment of how many containers actually are lost at sea has been a challenge. There have been widely circulated, but unsupported and grossly inaccurate statements that the industry might lose up to 10,000 containers a year at sea. A number of submissions to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have included similar numbers without any substantiation.

In order to expand and update the estimate of containers lost at sea, in 2014, the WSC surveyed its members for the years 2011, 2012 and 2013. In the 2014 survey, the WSC received reports from carriers representing 86% of the 2014 global container ship capacity. The WSC assumed for purpose of its analysis that the container losses for the remaining 14% of the industry would be roughly the same as the 86% of the industry that responded and again adjusted the total annual figure upward to produce a total estimated loss for all carriers, including member and non-member companies.

While containers lost overboard represent a very small fraction of the roughly 120 million container loads shipped each year, the industry has been actively supporting a number of efforts to enhance container safety that should help reduce the number of containers lost at sea, including amendments to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention (adoption up for consideration in November 2014), a new Code of Practice for Packing of Cargo Transport Units (final approval expected to be in November 2014), and revised ISO standards for container lashing equipment and corner castings (in the works).

Any loss of a container at sea is a loss that carriers seek to prevent. While the actual number of containers lost at sea is significantly less than many public statements cite, the industry’s goal continues to be to reduce those losses to as close to zero as possible.