Over 1,600 shipping containers lost at sea every year

World Shipping Council releases new figures following survey.
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 Boxships carried approximately 120 million containers packed with cargo last year, with an estimated value of more than US$4 trillion.

Proper packing, stowage and securing of containers is very important to the safety of a container ship, its cargo and its crew, to shore-based workers and equipment, and to the environment.

Even with proper packing of the cargo into the container, proper container weight declaration, and proper stowage and securing aboard ship, a number of factors ranging from severe weather and rough seas to more catastrophic and rare events like ship groundings, structural failures, or collisions can result in containers being lost at sea.

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 Organisation (IMO) have included similar numbers without any substantiation. In an effort to gain greater clarity on the issue, in 2011 and again in 2014, the World Shipping Council (WSC) undertook a survey of its member companies to obtain a more accurate estimate of the number of containers lost at sea on an annual basis.

In the 2011 survey, the WSC member companies were asked to report the number of containers lost overboard for the years 2008, 2009 and 2010. The carriers that responded represented over 70 per cent of the 2011 global container ship capacity. WSC assumed for the purpose of its analysis that the container losses for the 30 per cent of the industry that did not respond to the survey would be roughly the same as the 70 per cent of the industry that responded.

The total annual figure reported was adjusted upward to provide an estimated loss figure for all carriers, both WSC members and non-members, and arrive at a total industry figure. As one might expect, some carriers lost no containers during the period, while others noted a catastrophic loss, which for the purposes of this analysis was defined as a loss overboard of 50 or more containers in a single incident. Catastrophic losses are rare, but of the total number of containers lost at sea, a significant percentage result from catastrophic events.

Based on the 2011 survey results, the World Shipping Council estimated that on average there were approximately 350 containers lost at sea each year during the 2008-2010 time frame, not counting catastrophic events. When one counted the catastrophic losses, an average annual total loss per year of approximately 675 containers was estimated for this three year period.

In order to expand and update the estimate of containers lost at sea, in 2014, WSC surveyed its members for the years 2011, 2012 and 2013. In the 2014 survey, WSC received reports from carriers representing 86 per cent of the 2014 global container ship capacity. WSC again assumed for purpose of its analysis that the container losses for the remaining 14 per cent of the industry would be roughly the same as the 86 per cent 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.

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.

Analysis of the Survey Results 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 including catastrophic events.

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 M/V 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 per cent of which occurred with the sinking of the MOL Comfort in the Indian Ocean.

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