Under the sea: Life on a lost shipping container

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(c) 2004 MBARI

In 2004, on a trip from San Francisco to the Port of Los Angeles, the shipping vessel Med Taipei hit a patch of bad weather. Like all shipping vessels, Med Taipei was loaded down with 40-foot-long metal containers—the moving boxes that bring us stuff from all over the world and deliver our exports to other countries. In the storm, 24 of these containers fell off the Med Taipei and into the ocean.

That's not a particularly rare event. Thousands of shipping containers are lost every year, in much the same way, says Andrew DeVogelaere, Ph.D., research coordinator for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. What makes this story remarkable is that one of the lost shipping containers was eventually found. Just months after the box fell off the Med Taipei, researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute stumbled across it while placing sensors for a survey of the ocean floor within the Marine Sanctuary.

This year, the Sanctuary and MBARI were able to apply that good luck in a practical way, performing what is likely the first detailed study of a lost shipping container, and the effects it has on the ocean environment. I told you about this study back in March, when it was announced. Now that researchers have collected data and are starting to analyze it, I wanted to check in and find out more. In an interview last week, Andrew DeVogelaere told me about why it's difficult to study lost shipping containers, what creatures the researchers have found living on this container, and why what we don't know could hurt us.

Maggie Koerth-Baker: Your press materials say that this is the first time the environmental effects of lost shipping containers have been studied. But containers like this one have been in use for decades. Is this really the first time? What took so long?

Andrew DeVogelaere: That surprised me to. But I've not found any scientific publications on people studying containers. So I do think we're the first to do that. They're falling off all the time, 10,000 per year is best estimate. And the container we found is in really good condition. If we didn't know it had been down there for 7 years, we'd have guessed 4 months. But the containers aren't being found or studied because so few organizations can operate at that depth. The place we're looking at is 4,000 feet deep. Outside of oil companies operating rigs, MBARI is really one of the very few groups that's out there daily. Maybe the only one. It's still a poorly understood area. In these deep sea ecosystems we don't even know the species names for a lot of the creatures, and the way they interact with one another and the environment is still a mystery.

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MKB: Tell me about the location where the shipping container was found. What's it like? Some of the photos I saw before made it look kind of desolate.

AD: The seafloor there [at the container site] is quite beautiful. It's not just flat sand. there's topography and sea pens sticking up and crabs. Every few inches there's something. There's beautiful, lacy sea cucumbers, and a certain kind of pink crab that's associated with this species of sea cucumber. We're going to write a little scientific note on that relationship pattern, because people hadn't really noticed it before. We did just because we were down there [looking at the container].

People assume that we know more about the ocean than we do. There have been discussions about lost containers, especially in the European Union. They're a hazard because they'll float for a while and could sink wooden fishing boats. In the whole discussion, though, nobody talks about impacts to the deep sea. That's what we have to offer. When one of these falls off a boat it's not just a loss of merchandise, or a risk of loss of life. We're also impacting the deep sea community we don't even understand yet. And there's a societal cost to that, though how much we don't really know yet.

MKB: How difficult is it to do this kind of research? What has to happen just so you can observe the interaction between a shipping container and this environment that it's landed in?

AD: The first thing is the mechanical problem of getting something to that depth to look at it. Fortunately, we have MBARI. They have a big undersea robot the size of a car, tethered on 4,000 feet of cable. It's got mechanical arms. You also have to have a special ship that can maneuver to stay above the robot and manage the cable so it doesn't get tangled up. And it's only been in the last 10 years that we can go to that depth and find a specific place we've been before. That's not a trivial engineering thing to know exactly where the ship is, and from there to know where the ROV is and communicate with that from the ship. as technology advances we're going to have a lot more opportunities to study these containers. Beyond the cabled robots there are now autonomous vehicles being developed. If you can send these AUVs out in search patterns, we'll be able to find more containers.

So technology is a problem. But the number two difficulty is that we think there could be several levels of impact. Obviously [the container] crushes everything it lands on, but there's the question of how it affects the local ecology. It looks like certain species are attracted to this container. For instance, there's a relatively large snail that seemed to be attracted to the container where it would lay these amazing egg sacks, 5 or 6 inches high. But it looked like the container was also attracting crabs and octopus that fed on the snails as they're coming and going. So, when we look, we don't see many snails but they're somehow congregating around this container and changing predation patterns. You find a lot of empty shells in the area.

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Two king crabs, Family Lithodidae, near a shipping container lost in Monterey Bay. The empty shells are from the gastropod Neptunea amianta. (c) 2011 MBARI/NOAA

MKB: Before you started this study, what kinds of effects were you worried about? How did you expect shipping containers to interact with the environment they found themselves in?

AD: It's interesting, in that when this container fell into the sanctuary there were negotiations with the shipping company about mitigating damage. They were arguing there was no impact because there was nothing living down there. Luckily, we had research going on at that depth and could say that stuff lives there and this is what it looks like.

MKB: When we were first talking about your study on BoingBoing, both the readers and I thought about artificial reefs—how there are places where they've intentionally dumped things, like old subway cars, off the coast, and those form new habitats. It sounds somewhat like the shipping container is doing something similar, with the snails you mentioned. So I'm wondering, should we be worried about this? Are lost shipping containers a good thing?

AD: In some ways, saying that something is positive is a bit of a judgement call. If you like one kind of species it's positive to you. If you're a diver looking for big fish, then artificial reefs are good for you. But they're not good if you're a fisherman looking for squid [whose habitats are displaced by the reefs]. In this case, we saw these scallops that were living all over the container. MBARI has something like 8,000 hours of video at that depth and we've maybe only seen these scallops a few times before. So, maybe these containers are a positive for the deep sea scallops. It's possible. At this stage in the research, I wouldn't even want to say that anything is a huge negative or positive. But we now know something is going on and we should start studying it and stop ignoring it.

The toughest question is the issue of these containers forming stepping stones from one harbor to another across the deep sea. If you're familiar with invasive species, what prevents them from invading is often geographic breaks. Sandy surfaces can't be crossed by creatures that need a hard substrate. But these containers, falling off along shipping routes, could form stepping stones that allow creatures to move. That's just a hypothesis right now. We'd need to look at multiple containers to figure that out. But it's a hypothesis that makes sense.

MKB: Do shipping containers affect more of the environment than just wildlife?

AD: We don't have the results yet on this. But we took these sediment samples at different distances from the container. When you put something like that on the bottom of the ocean it affects the deep sea current and the size of sediment grains around it. We have to look at the grains we collected and see but, generally, faster currents mean larger grain size. There could be localized changes in sediments and that can impact the organisms, like which can live there.

Also, it's a bit of a stretch with this particular container, but the sediment thing also has an impact on pollution. Pesticide in the river, for instance, it sticks to the sediment, not the water. And it sticks more to smaller particles. Like I say, that's not as big of an issue here, but it could affect other shipping containers in other situations.

MKB: Let's talk about pollution a little bit more. Do the contents of the container matter? What's in your container?

AD: It's full of radial tires. I have said before that I didn't think tires were that toxic and one of my colleagues got upset. I was thinking more like it's not bleach or pesticide. Relatively speaking. The other containers that were lost [at the same time as this one] and that we never found contained cardboard, hair ribbons, hospital beds, sofas. Again, on a relative scale, those wouldn't be as bad. We do have some sediment where we'll be doing chemical analyses, to see if anything is leaching out.

One thing were were interested in is whether things were spilling out because of locks rusting after 7 years underwater. We thought we'd find something like that. In this case it didn't. It does happen though. There are famous stories of containers of Doritos that come ashore on the beach on the East Coast. Or a million bananas on the shores of the Netherlands. There's also a case where Nike shoes that were in a container spilled into the North Pacific and it became this big oceanographic study. Scientists figured out where currents were in that part of the ocean by following the shoes and where they ended up.

MKB: So you've collected all this data about this one shipping container, and you're in the process of analyzing that data to see what you can learn. But, once you've got your results, how much of that can you really extrapolate to other containers throughout the ocean? Does this really tell you much about the bigger picture?

AD: You're right on. Really, we took a relatively very quick look at one container. We can say some things about that one container and develop hypotheses about others. But I think we have a long way to go. As much as anything we have some ideas of potential impacts, and we think some effort should be made to start looking at other containers. Once you learn one thing you're going to have five other questions.

Meanwhile, while we know very little about the consequences, shipping containers are being lost all the time. When we first started this, I learned some amazing things about the things we use and where they come from. For instance, here in California we're interested in eating local fish. But squid caught in Monterey are taken to a packing company, shipped to China for processing, and then shipped back to Monterey to be sold as Monterey squid. We all benefit from the things that move around in containers and I don't think we realize that it's even happening.

MKB: So what happens next, both for you and on this larger issue?

AD: Right now we have a lot of video. We have notes and observations we made while we were at sea. We also have the sediment samples. We're going to look at chemistry, micro-invertebrates inside the sediment, and grain size. We can see general patterns in the video, but we're going to try to get down to a more refined taxa to figure out whether the species are invasive. And we want to quantify more carefully the density of organisms around the container. And my hope is that in two to three years we'll go back and visit again and try to detect other changes. Our hope is to publish this in some journals. That always takes a lot longer, though. Within half a year we'll have the data analyzed. It will take another year to get published after that.

On the other side, I'll be meeting with someone to look at international venues for discussing shipping container practices. We've been approached by a group from New Zealand to see how we can insert the information we do have into those ongoing discussions. There are suggestions that maybe there should be standard loading practices. Right now they don't even have to be weighed. You might be overloaded, lopsided, or heavy containers on top. And there aren't standards for how you tie them down, either. It would take longer and cost more, but it's something that's worth considering I think.

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