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American Shipper

Scientists study sunken container

Scientists study sunken container

   Researchers are using a robotic submarine this week to study the biological impacts of a shipping container resting on the seafloor about 12 miles outside of Monterey Bay, Calif.

   Researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) are conducting the study.

   MBARI researchers first discovered the container at a depth of about 4,200 feet during a marine biology dive in June 2004. Video from MBARI's submersible clearly showed serial numbers on the side of this container. Sanctuary staff sent these numbers to Customs and Border Protection, which was able to identify the ship that had originally carried the container.

   The vessel Med Taipei left San Francisco on Feb. 25, 2004, in the middle of a winter storm. As the ship headed south toward the Port of Los Angeles, it rolled violently in 23- to 30-foot swells. During the trek, 15 40-foot containers fell overboard. By the time the ship reached Los Angeles, nine more containers had fallen overboard, and another 21 lay crumpled on deck.

   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.

   On July 26, 2006, after a significant legal effort, the shipping company agreed to pay the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration $3.25 million to settle claims relating to the lost containers. Money from this settlement is being used to fund the upcoming research dives.

   According to the U.S. Customs manifest, the container discovered by MBARI holds 1,159 steel-belted tires. Other containers that fell overboard held cyclone fencing, leather chairs and mattress pads.

   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,' MBARI said.

   Leading the dives to the shipping container outside Monterey Bay this week 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.

   Over the last five years, the number of containers lost at sea has increased dramatically. 'This trend is likely to continue as new containerships 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 significantly,' MBARI said.