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How Many Shipping Containers Are Really Lost At Sea?


June 29, 2014 by Mike Schuler


Cuando un remolcador está trabajando acoderado a un buque con una línea de proa pasada

The MV Rena lost an estimated 900 containers when it ran aground, broke up, and later sank off the coast of New Zealand in October 2011. Photo courtesy Maritime New Zealand From severe weather and rough seas to catastrophic events such ship groundings and collisions, each year a number of shipping containers are lost overboard from ships. But just how many containers are lost each year at sea?

That’s a tough question to answer and one that is frequently asked. A quick Google search will point you to a number of unsubstantiated figures ranging from a couple of hundred up to 10,000 per year. But how many is it, really?

One report that has been widely accepted as the best estimate came in 2011 when the World Shipping Council polled its member companies, representing 90% of the world’s containership capacity, for the years 2008, 2009 and 2010 in an attempt to answer the question. Now, the World Shipping Council has once again surveyed its members for a 2014 updated report that includes figures from the last three years. Here’s what was found:

Containers Lost – 2008 to 2013

For the combined six year period from 2008 to 2013, the WSC estimates that there were 546 containers lost on average each year, not counting for catastrophic events. Counting for catastrophic events, an average of 1,679 containers were lost each year over the six years.

Losses are Increasing

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 for catastrophic events. When counting the catastrophic losses, an average annual total loss per year of approximately 675 containers was estimated for this three year period.

Based on 2014’s survey results, the WSV estimates that there were approximately 733 containers lost at sea on average for the years 2011, 2012 and 2013, not including catastrophic events. Including catastrophic losses, for these years the average annual loss was approximately 2,683 containers, an uptick of 297% from the previous three years.

Rare Catastrophic Events

The WSC report notes that the large number seen for the years 2011 through 2013 are the result of two rare catastrophic events: the 2013 sinking of the MOL Comfort in the Indian Ocean and the 2011 MV Rena grounding off New Zealand.

The report shows that the loss from the MOL Comfort alone resulted in the loss of all 4,293 containers (Comfort is considered the worst containership loss in history). The MV Rena, meanwhile, lost roughly 900 containers overboard when it grounded and broke up on a reef just off the coast of New Zealand in 2011 and into 2012. Hence the uptick.

The Bigger Picture

Now, all this may seem like a lot, but it’s a far cry from the 10,000 figure that is widely circulated, a figure that the WSC called in its report “unsupported and grossly inaccurate”. Also, when you consider that in 2013 the international liner shipping industry carried approximately 120 million containers packed with an estimated $4 trillion worth of cargo, the numbers don’t seem so bad.

Still, any loss of a container at sea is a loss that carriers seek to prevent. After all, containers lost at sea pose a number of dangers from environmental hazards to the safety of navigation, not to mention the economic loss of any cargo and potential recovery (just see Svendborg Maersk).

“Every container loss is one the industry would like to avoid. The updated report not only provides more accurate and up-to-date data on the issue, but also identifies those initiatives the industry is supporting to increase container safety and reduce such losses. While nobody can eliminate the challenges of bad weather or the risk of vessel casualties at sea, care and cooperation amongst all those who pack, handle, weigh, stow and secure containers is needed to improve safety. ” said Chris Koch, WSC President and CEO.

To help get this number as close to zero as possible, the industry has been actively supporting a number of efforts to enhance container safety and reduce loss. They can be read about in the WSC’s full report along with the methodoligy used HERE: Survey Results for Containers Lost At Sea – 2014 Update