Chances are that you’ve forgotten the walloping $3.25 million settlement the owners and operators of the container vessel Med Taipei paid to the United States to resolve allegations that the 15 containers lost overboard in 2004 resulted in long-term damage to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The container that was central to that settlement is still at the bottom of the bay, doing its thin at the service of science.
In February 2004, 15 containers fell overboard from the Med Taipei when the vessel was traveling on rough seas from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The containers carrieda variety of cargo – furniture, thousands of tires, several hundred thousand plastic items, miles of cyclone fencing, hospital beds, wheel chairs, recycled cardboard and clothing items. A US Coast Guard report revealed the containers were inappropriately loaded on board the vessel – there were faulty welds on anchor points for the containers, as well as missing d-rings from the deck of the vessel.
In June 2004, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute discovered one container carrying car tires at a depth of about 1,300 meters (4,200 feet) during a marine biology dive approximately 17 miles northwest of Pinos Point in outer Monterey Bay, California. MBARI took photographs of the container and the serial number was easily identified and traced back to the ship.
Each year, an estimated 10,000 shipping containers fall off container ships at sea. Although many of these containers float at the surface for months, most eventually sink to the seafloor. No one knows what happens to these containers once they reach the deep seafloor.
What happens them there? To find out, from 8 March to 10 March, 2011, a team of researchers from MBARI and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) used a robotic submarine to study the biological impacts of a shipping container resting on the seafloor about 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside of Monterey Bay (but still within the boundaries of the sanctuary).
Following up on MBARI’s discovery, sanctuary staff investigated the potential for recovering the other missing 14 containers. However, they soon discovered that it was unlikely that the additional containers would ever be located, and the cost and time involved in recovering them would have been prohibitive.
Leading the dives are Andrew DeVogelaere, research coordinator at the MBNMS, and James Barry, a senior scientist at MBARI. Using MBARI’s research vessel Western Flyer and the remotely operated vehicle Doc Ricketts, the team will take a close look at the container itself, as well as the seafloor around the container.
Marine biologists will count the number of deep-sea animals on and around the container, and collect samples of sediment at various distances from the container for biological and chemical analysis. By comparing animal communities close to and away from the container, the researchers hope to determine what effects (if any) the container has had on seafloor life.
Says MBARI: “Over the last five years, the number of containers lost at sea has increased dramatically. This trend is likely to continue as new container ships are being built twice as large as existing ones. Yet tie-down technology and lax monitoring of container weights and stacking procedures have not changed significantl”y.
The upcoming expedition will provide a snapshot of what is essentially a worldwide problem. When shipping containers are lost at sea, they endanger other craft, cost considerable time and money, and sometimes pose hazards to marine life. According to Andrew DeVogelaere, research coordinator at the MBNMS,:“As these containers drop to the bottom of the sea, they form deep-water stepping stones between ports, highways of debris, if you will. I hope that this cruise will help expand the public’s thinking about human impacts in the deep sea.”