When a Shipping Container is Lost at Sea, Does it Make a Sound?

Posted by World Trade Distribution
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If it lands in a marine sanctuary it does.

Three years ago the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) published an article detailing some startling facts and figures about shipping containers found in the ocean. MBARI’s study raised ecological concerns,  but their statistics  also concerned shipping brokers.

For manufacturers and tradesmen who export and import containers on a daily basis, the ability to track lost or stolen containers could claw back millions of dollars in lost inventory each year. Unfortunately there is no industry-wide tracking system in place that is capable of tracking goods globally. Perhaps RFIDs or GPS tracking devices will hold the key to future loss prevention efforts in trans-ocean shipping.

MBARI’s study is funded by a $3.25 million settlement awarded to them after a container fell off a ship and landed in the middle of their oceanic sanctuary.  This was the only shipping container recovered of 15 that were lost from a cargo ship during a bad storm. According to the study, 10,000 containers fall into the ocean from cargo ships and never make it to their final destination.

What’s the big deal? 10% of the containers that fall into the ocean are filled with hazardous chemicals that pollute the water, wreaking havoc on local ecosystems.  Even in minute amounts, over time the continual pollution takes its toll on sea life and marine mammals in ways we can measure and others we have yet to learn.

While sunken containers do provide a new home for sea creatures that otherwise would not find suitable home in the ocean’s depths, it is worth noting that there is usually a good reason that certain types of sea life don’t coexist.

Are we inadvertently create stepping-stones for species to cross continental divides and vast bodies of water that were once unreachable? This is just one important question worth considering before brushing off the problem as only a monetary nuisance for shippers.

Accountability & Container Tracking

In MBARI’s case, the burden of accountability was awarded to the shipping company who owned the vessel carrying the cargo when it went overboard. Having to pay out over $3 million for just one lost container during a day’s voyage is enough to warrant at least some research into better container tracking and recovery technology.

But what about accountability on a national scale? Should nations also be accountable for the actions of the companies that call them home? If there is no benchmark for international container freight accountability then when and why would anyone adopt a standard to begin with?

When it comes to tracking cargo with technology, there are several top contenders. RFIDs, like the ones used in our cars to track toll road charges, could potentially fill the void in container tracking device technology. However, their signals can only be tracked within short proximity. This limitation may not seem like a huge deal, but when ships travel thousands of miles across vast oceans to reach their destinations it becomes a very big problem.

GPS tracking devices may be the future, but again they too have their limitations. GPS tracking devices require a more powerful battery, which would have to be completely waterproofed and protected on the container but remain on the outside so the steel won’t block the signal. Like any other satellite signals, GPS trackers are also subject to outages during storms and can get blocked if something is in the way (like a large underwater rock formation).

Jul 26 2014
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