3,000 Shipping Containers Fell Into the Pacific Ocean Last Winter
A rise in container-ship accidents adds to the growing marine plastic pollution problem and poses risks to ocean health, wildlife and mariners.
You’re right if you think you’ve been hearing a lot about container ships lately. One off the coast of Sri Lanka that was carrying 25 tons of nitric acid and other cargo suffered an explosion after containers caught fire on May 20 and burned for more than a week, littering the beaches with plastic pollution. And in March all eyes were on the Suez Canal, where a 1,300-foot-long container ship turned sideways and gummed up international trade with a six-day-long traffic jam. Maybe you’ve also had your shoes, bike or other online purchases delayed because of backed-up ports near Los Angeles.
But less attention surrounded a spate of container-ship accidents in the Pacific Ocean this past winter. It included one of the worst shipping accidents on record, which occurred near midnight on Nov. 30 as towering waves buffeted the ONE Apus, a 1,200-foot cargo ship delivering thousands of containers full of goods from China to Los Angeles. In remote waters 1,600 miles northwest of Hawai‘i, the container stack lashed to the ship’s deck collapsed, tossing more than 1,800 containers into the sea.
Some of those containers carried dangerous goods, including batteries, fireworks and liquid ethanol.
“This is a massive spill,” says oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer, who has tracked marine debris from container spills for over 30 years. The ONE Apus lost more containers in a single night than the shipping industry reports are lost worldwide in an entire year.
It was also only one of at least six spills since October that dumped more than 3,000 cargo containers into the Pacific Ocean along shipping routes between Asia and the United States. They include the loss of 100 containers from the ONE Aquila on Oct. 30 and 750 containers from the Maersk Essen on Jan. 16. Both ships encountered rough weather while delivering goods to the United States.
Experts say these types of spills, which tend to fly under the public’s radar, put containers into the sea that pose potential hazards to the health of the ocean and put everything from mariners to wildlife at risk.
“They’re like time capsules of everything we buy and sell, sitting in the deep sea,” says Andrew DeVogelaere, NOAA research coordinator at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in California. Those lost containers may harm wildlife and ocean health, he says, by crushing aquatic habitats or introducing new seabed features that change biological communities or even aid the spread of invasive species. They can also release hazardous cargo such as the 6,000 pounds of sulfuric acid that went into the sea when the Maersk Shanghai lost containers off of the North Carolina coast in 2018.
Despite that potential for danger, no one is tracking the lost containers in the Pacific and opinions vary about where they will come to rest. Many are likely on the ocean floor, but an unknown number may have ruptured and disgorged their contents, which typically include many thousands of consumer items made of plastic. They could float for years in the ocean or wash ashore in Alaska, Hawai‘i or other locations.
To date, the only debris known to come ashore from this winter’s accidents are giant waterlogged sacks of chia seeds, which hit Oregon beaches in December following the loss of six containers from a ship near the California coast. Federal biologists were still cleaning smelly globs of the seeds from threatened snowy plover nesting habitat in April.
The accidents come at a time when the container shipping industry we all rely on is under unprecedented strain. In April the National Retail Federation reported a 10th consecutive month of record-high imports from Asia to the U.S. West Coast, driven by skyrocketing online shopping tied to the pandemic.
It’s led to backed-up ports, delayed deliveries, and shortages of empty containers, conditions that are forecast to continue. But in a trick of the pandemic tied to both U.S. shopping patterns and Chinese factory schedules, it also put more cargo ships on the water during fall and winter, the stormiest time of year in the Pacific.
Some experts say the changes may represent a new normal for trans-Pacific container shipping. If that’s true, more spills may lie ahead — prompting calls for greater transparency and accountability from shippers.
Decades of Debris
“I’m considered persona non grata by the shipping industry,” Ebbesmeyer says when asked if he knew anything about what was aboard the ONE Apus or where it might be headed. “They blackballed me years ago. They didn’t like me shining a light in a dark place.”
That dark place is the inside of a shipping container. Back in the 1990s Ebbesmeyer began applying his oceanography skills to tracking debris from what seemed like an ever-increasing number of container accidents. One year it was 28,000 rubber bath toys shaped like ducks, beavers, turtles and frogs that spilled from a single container lost in the North Pacific. Another year it was 61,000 Nike sneakers from a handful of containers, also in the Pacific.
With a friend at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, he calculated how far the flotsam would travel. Over close to a decade, beachcombers around the world confirmed their predictions with reports of debris from Texas to Australia to the United Kingdom.
“As an oceanographer, I want to know how the ocean works,” Ebbesmeyer says. Following the debris helped him understand ocean currents and the destination of the marine debris that even by the 1990s was on the rise. But as Ebbesmeyer’s work gained notoriety, he says the industry went mum. And what little light had been shed inside shipping containers flickered out.
But the accidents didn’t stop. In 1997 a single container lost from a ship in near England spilled 5 million Lego pieces, which still wash ashore today.
Source: The Revelator
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