Lost shipping container study

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In 2004, while observing the seabed at 1,300 meters depth during a dive with the ROV Ventana in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS), researchers discovered a shipping container resting on the seabed. Based on its serial number, MBNMS (part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and U.S. Customs identified the source vessel. Investigators determined that the ship, the Med Taipei, lost 15 containers off its deck during a storm earlier that year. However, as no one was harmed, there was no legal requirement for the shipping company to report the loss.

After a significant legal effort, the shipping company agreed in 2006 to pay NOAA $3.25 million to settle claims relating to the lost containers. Funds from this settlement supported a research expedition to the site in 2011 to investigate any impact the container may have upon the nearby environment. Together, MBNMS research coordinator Andrew DeVogelaere and MBARI ecologist James Barry are identifying and counting animals on and around the container, and evaluating changes in the sediment and sediment-dwelling fauna in the vicinity of the container. By comparing animal communities at distances radiating away from the container, the researchers hope to determine what effects, if any, the container has had on seafloor life. Initial results indicate that a very different suite of animals lives upon the container compared with the surrounding seafloor. Although most animal species observed on the container are common on rock outcrops in the region, they are unusual in the vicinity of the container because rocky surfaces are fairly rare in the immediate area, where mud and sand are prevalent.

According to the U.S. Customs manifest, the container holds more than a thousand steelbelted tires. It does not yet appear to be leaking, but any compounds released into the marine environment from the container as it degrades may affect the local biological assemblage. This is yet another example of debris creating habitat for organisms, but the long-term effects remain to be seen. Although the research team does not expect large ecological impacts from the single container under study, it is important to consider the combined effects of the many shipping containers lost each year, which eventually accumulate on the deep seabed. This research effort provides a much-needed snapshot of a worldwide question with vast areas of the deep sea still unexplored. MBARI’s ROV videos have recorded evidence of debris as far afield as the waters off Southern California, the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii, and in the Gulf of California.

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