Blog July 25, 2014

Of containers lost at sea

By Nicola Byers

Intermodal Eye takes a look at the recent World Shipping Council report on containers lost at sea and what can be done to improve the situation

So, how many containers actually are lost at sea each year?

This has proved a tough question for industry and regulators to answer with accuracy, as there is no unified international regime for submitting and substantiating figures. This was one of the reasons that the World Shipping Council (WSC) first set up a member survey on the issue in 2011, which it has now repeated and updated.

WSC – whose members represent 90% of global containership capacity – argued that the widely circulated claim of up to 10,000 containers lost at sea annually was “unsupported and grossly inaccurate”. The fact this number was also being used in submissions to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) was of particular concern, given the potential impact on legislative decisions.

Cutting to the chase, WSC’s 2014 survey says that an average of 1,679 containers were lost at sea annually from 2008-2013, rising to 2,683 from 2011-2013.

The 2014 survey statistics are based on direct data from carriers representing 86% of the 2014 global container ship capacity, says WSC, plus extrapolated figures assuming a similar loss level for the remaining 14%.

These averages include catastrophic losses which, though rare, account for a significant percentage of the total and tend to cause a big spike when they occur, notes WSC. It cites the 2011 grounding of the M/V Rena, with c.900 containers overboard, and the 2013 sinking of the MSC Comfort along with all her 4,293 containers – accounting for 77% of the total 5,578 containers lost that year.

With figures so skewed by major incidents, WSC’s survey also gives numbers excluding catastrophes, citing an annual average of 733 containers lost at sea from 2011-2013.

What are the major causes of loss?

Another thorny one to quantify, but broadly – poor packing of cargo into the container, inaccurate container weight declaration and bad stowage/securing aboard are cited as the ‘big 3’ causes that are within industry’s power to do something about.

Severe weather and rough seas are naturally important factors (pun intended). There are also the more catastrophic events including ship groundings, structural failures and collisions. And then there is fire.

In many cases, of course, losses will result from the interplay of various factors – such as poorly lashed containers on a ship that hits bad weather.

What can be done to improve the situation?

There are also 3 major initiatives now being (or about to be) rolled out to tackle the ‘big 3’ causes at an international level:

Amendments to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention: As reported by Intermodal Eye in May, IMO is poised to approve amendments to the SOLAS Convention that will require container weight verification as a condition for vessel loading.

New Code of Practice for Packing of Cargo Transport Units (CTUs): The IMO, International Labour Organization (ILO), and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), with industry support, have produced a new Code of Practice for the packing of CTUs, including containers, outlining specific procedures and techniques to improve safety, such as how to ensure equal weight distribution inside the container, proper positioning, blocking and bracing according to cargo type, and other safety considerations. The new Code has been approved by IMO and UNECE and is expected to receive final ILO approval this November.

Revised ISO standards for container lashing equipment and corner castings: IMO has also asked the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to review and revise its standards for lashing equipment and corner castings. The ISO is working on these issues with the industry’s active participation.

For more information