Worrying increase in number of containers lost at sea

There was a significant rise in the number of shipping containers lost at sea over the winter of 2020-21, according to the latest Containers Lost at Sea report from the trade association the World Shipping Council.

The WSC has traditionally issued its container loss report once every three years and has based it on surveys of WSC member companies for the preceding three years. Previous surveys took place in 2011, 2014, 2017, and 2020.

However, due to the unusually high number of incidents in 2020-21, it said that it was increasing the frequency of updates to annually.

The latest report covers the period 2020 to the end of 2021.

The winter of 2020-21 saw such an increase in the number of weather-related losses that the average per year for the two-year period rose to 3,113 containers, compared to 779 in the previous period (2017-2019).

There had been a long-term gradual decline in the extent of losses and this was seen as a worrying reversal of that trend. The increase in 2020-21 was specifically attributed to significant container loss incidents such as the ONE Apus, which lost more than 1,800 containers in severe weather in November 2020. The Maersk Essen lost about 750 containers overboard during severe weather in 2021.

The impact of a large number of losses from single incidents can lead to volatility within a long-term trend

Large losses from single incidents such as the ONE Apus and the Maersk Essen have not been observed since the 2014-2016 reporting period, which included the loss of the SS El Faro.

The year 2022 to date had seen few incidents involving containers lost at sea and no major ones; however, the industry was “deeply concerned” by the rising numbers, said the WSC.

“Container vessels are designed to transport containers safely and carriers operate with tight safety procedures, but when we see numbers going the wrong way, we need to make every effort to find out why and further increase safety,” said WSC president and CEO John Butler.

International liner carriers managed 6,300 ships in 2021, carrying goods valued at $7trn in about 241m containers. The period 2020-2021 noted that containers lost overboard represented less than one thousandth of 1% (0.001%) of containers carried.

Put another way, if you sent a container on an international trip, you would only have a one in 100,000 chance of losing it at sea.

“The liner shipping industry’s goal remains to keep the loss of containers as close to zero as possible. We will continue to explore and implement measures to make that happen and welcome continued cooperation from governments and other stakeholders to accomplish this goal,” said Butler.