How Many Containers Have Shippers Lost at Sea?

 The World Shipping Council (WSC) estimates in its report on containers lost at sea that for the combined six year period from 2008 to 2013, there were 546 containers lost on average each year.


This figure does not include catastrophic events, and 1,679 containers lost at sea each year including catastrophic events, such at the MOL Comfort disaster.

The earlier WSC survey, released in 2011, covered the years 2008, 2009 and 2010. The new survey includes data for years 2011, 2012 and 2013.

The report notes that 2011 and 2013 each saw rare catastrophic events that resulted in complete and total vessel losses.

In 2013, the international liner shipping industry carried approximately 120 million containers packed with cargo, with an estimated value of more than $4 trillion.

Proper packing, stowage and securing of containers is very important to the safety of a containership, its cargo and its crew, to shore-based workers and equipment, and to the environment.

Even with proper packing of the cargo into the container, proper container weight declaration, and proper stowage and securing aboard ship, a number of factors ranging from severe weather and rough seas to more catastrophic and rare events like ship groundings, structural failures, or collisions can result in containers being lost at sea.

Obtaining an accurate assessment of how many containers actually are lost at sea has been a challenge.

There have been widely circulated, but unsupported and grossly inaccurate statements that the industry might lose up to 10,000 containers a year at sea.

In an effort to gain greater clarity on the issue, in 2011 and again in 2014, the World Shipping Council (WSC) undertook a survey of its member companies to obtain a more accurate estimate of the number of containers lost at sea on an annual basis.

Catastrophic Losses

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 catastrophic events.

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

In order to expand and update the estimate of containers lost at sea, in 2014, WSC surveyed its members for the years 2011, 2012 and 2013.

In the 2014 survey, WSC received reports from carriers representing 86% of the 2014 global container ship capacity.

The survey of the years 2011, 2012 and 2013 estimates that there were approximately 733 containers lost at sea on average for each of these three years, not counting catastrophic events.

When one includes catastrophic losses (as defined above) during these years, the average annual loss for the period was approximately 2,683 containers.

This larger number is due primarily to two factors:

  • the complete loss in 2013 of the MOL Comfort in the Indian Ocean and all of the 4,293 containers on board–the worst containership loss in history; and,
  • in 2011, the grounding and loss of the M/V Rena off New Zealand, which resulted in a loss overboard of roughly 900 containers.

These incidents involved complete and total vessel losses.


Analysis of the Survey Results

Combining the results of the two WSC surveys over the six year period from 2008 to 2013, the WSC estimates  that there were on average 546 containers lost at sea each year, not counting catastrophic events, and on average a total of 1,679 containers lost at sea each year including catastrophic events.

The data demonstrates that container losses in any particular year can vary quite substantially based on differences in weather and based on the extent to which there may be one or more catastrophic vessel losses.

For example, in 2011 (the year of the loss of the M/V Rena) there was a total annual loss of 1,514 containers.

In 2012, there was a total loss of 958 containers.

In 2013, there was a total loss of 5,578 containers–77% of which occurred with the sinking of the MOL Comfort in the Indian Ocean.

Active Safety Improvement Initiatives

While containers lost overboard represent a very small fraction of the roughly 120 million container loads shipped each year, the industry has been actively supporting a number of efforts to enhance container safety that should help reduce the number of containers lost at sea, including:

  • Amendments to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention
  • New Code of Practice for Packing of Cargo Transport Units (CTU)
  • Revised ISO standards for container lashing equipment and corner castings

“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.

Full report is available here

WSC, June 29, 2014

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