Number of containers lost at sea falls, but safety risk remains

A tugboat brings two overboard containers from MSC Zoe on 8 January 2019. Credit: REMKO DE WAAL/AFP via Getty Images

The number of containers lost at sea every year has declined from 2017 to 2019, according to recent statistics published by the World Shipping Council (WSC), but still pose threats to safe vessel navigation.

Based on data received over a 12-year period, the WSC has estimated that, on average, a total of 1,382 containers are lost at sea each year. However, in their latest update, published on 10 July 2020, they also confirmed that the three-year moving average is in decline. Indeed, the average yearly container losses reported from 2017 to 2019 was almost half the number of losses reported between 2014 and 2016, with an average of 779 containers lost per year.

In 2019, the international liner shipping industry transported approximately 226 million containers, with more than 6,000 ships carrying containers around the world at any point in time.

Although lost containers represent a small percentage of total annual cargo volume shipped each year, containers lost at sea continue to pose a great threat to vessel safety, given the enormous cargo volumes transported by container lines annually. This week, the South African Port of Ngqura was closed after a container ship lost 23 containers overboard in Algoa Bay on 14 July, during heavy weather. The port was closed because there was a risk that some containers may have sunk in the approach channel, creating a hazard to navigation.

According to WSC data, in the first reporting period, between 2008 and 2010, there were 675 losses per year on average, representing the lowest losses recorded during the 12-year period. Then, between 2011 and 2013, the number of lost containers quadrupled to an average of 2,683 per year. This spike in container losses is largely attributable to the sinking of MOL Comfort in 2013, which resulted in the loss of 4,293 containers, followed by the grounding and loss of M/V Rena in 2011, which resulted in approximately 900 lost containers.

Between 2014 and 2016, the number of lost containers declined to an average of 1,390 per year, representing close to a 50% reduction compared with the previous period. However, the sinking of El Faro and its 517 containers had a significant impact on the average losses calculated for that period.

The downward trend in container losses continued into 2017–19, detailed in the WSC’s 10 July update. The WSC reported that this significant decline could be attributed to the absence of any major individual vessel losses compared with the previous periods. However, the report confirmed a few incidents that each lost more than 100 containers occurred between 2018 and 2019.

Many active safety improvement initiatives exist to remedy the situation, as listed in the WSC 2020 update. These include the revised ISO standards for container lashing equipment and corner castings, the Code of Practice for Packing of Cargo Transport Units (CTU Code), and the revision of the International Maritime Organization’s guidelines for the inspection programmes for cargo transport units, including containers.

However, containers continue to be lost due to stowage, lashing, and misdeclaration issues. Severe weather, ship groundings, structural failures, and ship collisions are also a major cause of container losses at sea.

The WSC periodically distributes surveys to its members, who are asked to report the number of containers lost overboard for the preceding three years. To date, the WSC have conducted four surveys in 2011, 2014, 2017, and 2020. Its membership represents 80% of global container ship capacity.

The WSC Containers Lost at Sea 2020 update report can be accessed here.