Into the drink

Local oceanographic research adds an ecological angle to an international maritime discussion



DAVY JONES’ LOCKER :  An 8-by-40-foot steel shipping container lost at sea in 2004, and discovered lying approximately 4,000 feet below the surface in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, has become the focus of a groundbreaking oceanographic research project.
  • DAVY JONES’ LOCKER : An 8-by-40-foot steel shipping container lost at sea in 2004, and discovered lying approximately 4,000 feet below the surface in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, has become the focus of a groundbreaking oceanographic research project.

*Blip. Blip.*

It was just before noon. Patrick Whaling was suddenly alerted to a dark shadow on the sonar screen before him—what he calls a “hit.” Whaling, the senior research technician for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), along with a handful of crewmembers and submersible vehicle pilots, sat in a dark control room aboard the Western Flyer, MBARI’s 117-foot oceanographic research vessel, anchored some 12 miles offshore of Monterey Bay.

The day’s mission was to conduct video transects, where MBARI’s remotely operated vehicle (ROV), the Ventana, scanned the floor around the Monterey Canyon—a submarine system that juts 95 miles into the deep of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary—recording and documenting marine organisms at different depths.

Though most of the seafloor at nearly 4,000 feet is more or less mud, it’s home to a variety of deep-sea critters and kelp. Conducting transects can be tedious and even a little boring, Whaling admitted. The occasional unidentified organism or sunken skiff can break that tedium, but what they found that day in June 2004 was something no researcher—or anybody, for that matter—had ever witnessed before at the bottom of the ocean.

About 10 seconds after the sonar hit, a grainy shadow began to come into focus through the Ventana’s video link.

“Sure enough, when we got close to it, we saw that red, rusty color,”  said Whaling, whose long hair, ship-roaming sneakers, and unbridled enthusiasm loosely call to mind Richard Dreyfuss’ character in Jaws.

What they had stumbled across was an 8-by-40-foot steel intermodal shipping container, the kind stacked high aboard large commercial vessels, typically containing goods—everything from shoes to televisions to food—and sometimes even hazardous chemicals.

The fact that the container was there wasn’t especially surprising, given that up to an estimated 10,000 such containers do the Peter Pan off the side of commercial vessels every year. What is remarkable, however, is that somebody actually found one slumbering at a depth where few venture.

The rarity of the find didn’t go unappreciated by Whaling and the crew, but half the day was gone and they still had plenty of seafloor to cover.

“It was definitely exciting, but not as exciting as discovering a marine mammal at that depth, I guess,” Whaling said. “We’re not in the salvage business.”

Whaling instructed the pilots to pivot the ROV around the container to get a clear video of it, record its location, relay the info back to the command center in Moss Landing, and go on their merry way.

The hunt for red container

Soon after the discovery, the researchers traced the container back to the ship that dropped it.

On Feb. 26, 2004, the foreign-flagged Med Taipei left port in China and, after exchanging cargo in the San Francisco Bay Area, encountered a winter storm en route to the Port of Los Angeles. Confronted with up to 30-foot westerly swells, 30-knot winds, and rolls of approximately 25 degrees, the vessel inadvertently lost 15 containers 80 miles south of the Golden Gate Bridge. According to the ship’s manifest and captain’s report, the ship later lost another nine containers approximately 60 miles west of Pismo Beach.

By the time it made port, the Med Taipei had lost 24 containers, and an additional 21 were found collapsed on the deck.

During the investigation into the sunken container, an optimistic rumor began to quietly circulate among the scientists, according to one MBARI staffer, as to what goodies lay in wet hibernation inside the box. Among the hopeful cargo were bottles of French wine. Alas, further examination of the U.S. Customs’ manifest revealed a cargo of a somewhat less-exotic nature: 1,159 steel-belted tires. Other containers that fell overboard in the sanctuary, and off Pismo Beach, held cyclone fencing, hospital beds, leather chairs, and mattress pads.

The fate of those containers and their cargo remains unknown.

MBARI researchers believe the container found in the sanctuary drifted to its current location approximately 3,843 feet below the surface, and roughly 20 miles offshore. They also estimate that the other 14 containers may have sunk in deeper waters or onto slopes of the Monterey Canyon. The possibility also exists that they could still be linked together in their original stack formation, held together by “pins,” or spring-loaded heavy-duty locks on each corner.

INTO THE DEEP :  (Clockwise from top left) Senior MBARI researcher Patrick Whaling; the Western Flyer; MBARI’s ROV the Ventana; the three-man control room aboard the Western Flyer; MBARI’s pair of AUV’s; and the eye of the Doc Ricketts. - PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • INTO THE DEEP : (Clockwise from top left) Senior MBARI researcher Patrick Whaling; the Western Flyer; MBARI’s ROV the Ventana; the three-man control room aboard the Western Flyer; MBARI’s pair of AUV’s; and the eye of the Doc Ricketts.

Because the container landed in a national sanctuary, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fined the shipping company, eventually reaching a $3.25 million settlement. Instead of using the money to locate and remove the containers—no simple or cheap task—the sanctuary elected to fund a number of small restoration projects, as well as a study to unlock the mysteries of how these containers, over time, could impact the benthic (seafloor) habitat, and calculate its decomposition rate—research never before undertaken anywhere on the globe.

MBARI researchers contend the total scope of the container research, combined with the various restoration projects, will provide an added benefit to the sanctuary far beyond what removal of the containers would have offered—and at a fraction of the cost.

MBARI researchers didn’t revisit the container until March 2011. Setting off from Moss Landing on a two-day “cruise” aboard the Western Flyer, scientists and educators from both the MBARI and the Sanctuary rode out to the container site, this time equipped with a newer-model ROV: MBARI’s own Doc Ricketts, fitted with two manipulator arms and three high-resolution cameras and capable of descending to a bone-crushing depth of 4,000 meters (about 13,000 feet). Those stats make it one of only a handful of submersibles of its kind in the world.

On March 8, the sanctuary’s Senior Research Coordinator Andrew DeVogelaere and a crew of 15 set off on the Flyer to once again track down the container, assess its current condition through hundreds of still shots—or “frame grabs”—and analyze the sea life that had attached itself over the years and the organisms living at various distances around it.

Relatively little information about the container’s effects on the area is known at this early stage, but according to DeVogelaere, there are a number of potential impacts that can be hypothesized. Those impacts range from no-brainers like the crushing or smothering of benthic organisms, an expanding footprint as the container degrades and spreads its contents along the seafloor, and the risk of species becoming trapped or ingesting those possibly hazardous materials. Other impacts can only be proved through research, such as shifts in the local ecology and the introduction of foreign organisms to a habitat.

“Well, clearly anything that was under the container was instantly crushed,” DeVogelaere said.

But given that roughly 10 percent of all commercial vessels carry chemicals and materials known to be hazardous, it’s not a stretch to assume that having such cargo released would wreak havoc on a fragile ecosystem, he added.

Other hypotheses are harder to confirm and take a considerable amount of time and manpower. The idea that a fallen 40-foot long container can create “stepping stones,” as DeVogelaere calls them, or a bridge, between two separate habitats, is one of those.

“In many [human and animal] cases, bio-geographic distribution is limited by physical breaks or barriers; the same goes for ocean creatures,” DeVogelaere said. “But if we create these stepping stones of hard substratum where some species can move across a bio-geographic area, the concept is you’re altering habitats.”

Already, the observers can plainly see that the container is attracting a variety of sea critters like moths to a flame. Various gastropods, anemones, sea shrimp, cucumbers, crabs, and even underwater growths like Venus flytraps are clearly visible in still photos from the cruise, plastering the surface of the container or swimming around it. This attraction may lead one to wonder if the container is a benefit to a seemingly barren sea floor, an ecological boost not unlike that of an artificial reef. But DeVogelaere is cautious about that assertion. Building an effective artificial reef takes careful planning and “can’t just be dropped into the sea willy-nilly,” he said.

Then, of course, there’s the degradation issue. Standardized, steel intermodal containers are made to withstand heavy pressure of being stacked six or seven high, maybe more. They’re supposed to be able to stand torrential storms and survive prolonged wet conditions. As such, containers could take centuries to completely rust through and crumble. As they follow that slow pace of disintegration, every year new containers may be joining them at the bottom of the same waters, possibly creating an underwater footprint—far from scrutinizing eyes—traceable to the steady cadence of international commerce that trudges along thousands of feet above.

SCIENCE AT WORK :  (clockwise from top) MBARI Senior research Coordinator Andrew DeVogelaere points to the location of the container in relation to the Monterey Canyon; MBARI’s archive room containing tens of thousands of hours of video footage; the Doc Ricketts aboard the hull of the Western Flyer. - PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • SCIENCE AT WORK : (clockwise from top) MBARI Senior research Coordinator Andrew DeVogelaere points to the location of the container in relation to the Monterey Canyon; MBARI’s archive room containing tens of thousands of hours of video footage; the Doc Ricketts aboard the hull of the Western Flyer.

Paving the seafloor?

Joseph Conrad once wrote, “A modern fleet of ships does not so much make use of the sea as exploit a highway.”

If the growing number of cargo vessels and ever-increasing tonnage of goods shipped to ports around the world has indeed led to a proverbial “highway” system out in the ocean, the Central Coast could be next to one of the largest highways in the world.

Located smack dab between three of the country’s busiest ports—the Port of Los Angeles, the Port of Long Beach, and the Port of Oakland—which rank high in the list of busiest ports world-wide, the Central Coast looks out on the sea to a network of busy shipping lanes.

Regulations for shipping lanes along the coast have recently been updated, but locally, large commercial vessels of at least 300 gross tons not carrying hazardous materials are required to travel approximately 17 miles offshore for northbound vessels, and around 23 miles for southbound vessels. Those shipping hazardous materials such as chemicals, liquefied gases, ore concentrates, munitions, and other refined products travel offshore approximately 28 miles northbound and 34 miles southbound.

Tankers carrying crude oil and other persistent bulk cargo are required to travel at a distance of about 55 miles or more offshore.

Annual tonnage reports published by the major California ports reveal that traffic in international shipping is increasing steadily. In 1990, for example, the Port of Los Angeles—the busiest port in the United States—received and shipped approximately 2.1 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs), a standardized maritime industry measurement used when counting cargo containers of various lengths. Only 10 years later, that figure had more than doubled. Despite a brief and minor decline in traffic during the economic recession in 2008, the port is booming once again, with cargo traffic reaching 7.8 million TEUs in 2010.

The World Shipping Council, the international public policy organization whose 29 member companies represent roughly 90 percent of the shipping industry, estimates that about five to six million containers are in transit at any given time.

Given the amount of cargo shipped every year, an average annual loss of 10,000 containers to Davy Jones’ locker represents only a very small fraction of a percent of shipping. Yet that figure has been met with skepticism from the industry and some of the organizations that represent it.

Unfortunately, finding accurate numbers on how many containers are lost is next to impossible. First off, there’s no regulating body with jurisdiction or resources to track such occurrences. New Times inquired with a number of governmental bodies, including the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs, neither of which track or could provide any relevant data for U.S. waters.

A Coast Guard spokesperson said that while it does consider shipping container loss an “important issue,” it doesn’t track losses, nor could it provide any data or examples of accidents occurring in shipping lanes due to fallen and floating containers.

And while 10,000 lost containers per year is accepted as a believable number by various sources ranging from MBARI to the European Union, the source for that statistic is very vague, leaving room for the industry to cry potential foul.

“Obviously, when that 10,000 figure is being thrown around, it raises concerns,” Anne Kappel, vice president for the World Shipping Council, told New Times. “But then when you compare even that number to the hundreds of millions that move [annually], it’s not that high.”

Kappel said that since the discovery of the container in the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary, the council has seen an increase in inquiries from environmental groups and the media about container loss. As a result, the council began polling its member companies to hammer down a citable figure, the results of which have yet to be released. Kappel said the information provided by the companies is private, disclosed to the council in good faith. What she did say is, based on what they’ve found so far, 10,000 containers lost annually is a “gross overstatement.”

The group is looking at a figure closer to 2,000 containers, with some companies reporting no losses in some years—though those findings are preliminary, Kappel said.

“We don’t want to trivialize something when [MBARI is] still studying this, but [our members are] pretty responsible,” Kappel said. “But I think it’s interesting for people in the industry, because we’re not aware that it is creating an environmental problem. … If they find something like that in the study, then we’ll take a look at it.”

That shipping companies and their insurers would want to minimize the perception that containers are lost at sea and perhaps even low-ball that figure isn’t surprising, said one member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents workers who load and unload commercial vessels once they reach port. The member talked to New Times on condition of anonymity.

The larger issue from the union’s perspective is how—and to what capacity—vessels are loaded and the containers stacked.

“The pressure from the companies to push as many containers through as possible is a constant factor, one with many consequences,” the union member said. “They’re in it to make money, and they have shown again and again that they’ll cut corners to do it.”

Craig Merrilees, the union’s communications director, stopped short of calling the industry complacent, but he did point out that the job of longshoremen is an extremely dangerous one. Even so, he said, container loss happens.

“Longshore workers are committed to doing everything possible to lash and secure the containers so they’re as safe and secure as possible, so that [losses] are kept to a minimum,” Merrilees said.

One of the aggregating factors, Merrilees explained, is underreporting the weight of cargo. Industry regulators are currently working to mitigate that problem. In December 2010, the World Shipping Council and the International Chamber of Shipping jointly urged the International Maritime Organization, the chief industry regulator, to establish a legal requirement that all containers be weighed at the port before being loaded on a vessel—a practice already followed by many, but not enforced across the globe.

According to a U.S. Department of Justice news release regarding the Med Taipei settlement with the sanctuary, the vessel’s losses were attributed to inappropriate loading of the containers and faulty welding on anchor points.

In October 2010, the issue of container loss was brought up before the European Union, where, in a speech applauded by many attendees, the chair of the EU’s Transport Committee, Brian Simpson, lashed out against the shipping industry for what he called their “laissez faire attitude” toward safety. Again, Simpson cited that 10,000 containers are lost every year—2,000 in European waters alone—but he didn’t note where he found that figure.

“It would appear to us that the shipping lines and [their] insurers are quite happy to accept that figure and do nothing about it,” Simpson said. “But we’re not prepared to accept this any longer.”

One of the proposals Simpson laid out is a currently nonexistent, internationally recognized set of standards for stacking and lashing containers, as well as the possibility of fitting containers with small tracing beacons. But equipping millions—perhaps hundreds of millions—of containers would be costly, and the benefits of such an endeavor must be made clear before making that leap, responded one European commissioner representing the industry.

Finding answers

While the shipping industry, the unions, and the international community look at the issue through a lens focused on lost revenues, floating debris, and navigation hazards to other vessels, DeVogelaere and the MBARI researchers are hoping to insert the potential ecological impacts into the conversation on lost containers.

Ultimately, whatever data is gleaned from observing how one container affects this small region of the sanctuary will only provide one example, and will by no means provide a definitive answer, DeVogelaere said. In order to be more conclusive, similar studies on other containers at different depths and different areas will be needed.

To do that, more containers would have to be located. That’s not an easy undertaking—nor a cheap one.

But technological advances could soon make it feasible to try to locate the other 14 containers in the area. Since the 2004 discovery, for example, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs)—unmanned, untethered, missle-shaped instruments—have advanced so vastly it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that in the near future, MBARI’s pair of AUVs could be dispatched to rove the trenches of Monterey Canyon, equipped with a magnometer, and track down the missing containers.  

DeVogelaere added that the MBARI likely has enough designated funding left for two more trips out to the container, the next of which probably won’t happen until 2015. After that, he said, there’s a possibility of receiving grants, or possibly allowing a willing and capable party to pick up where MBARI and the sanctuary left off.

“It’s interesting that from one container, this could be a story of an international collaboration,” DeVogelaere said. “And it only came about because this one container happened to fall in a marine sanctuary.”

Contact Staff Writer Matt Fountain at [email protected].


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