Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network
Monitoring Project

Ecological Assessment of a Lost Shipping Container in the MBNMS

Principal Investigator(s)

  • Andrew DeVogelaere
    Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
  • Jim Barry
    Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute


  • Med Taipei Mitigation Fund
  • Save The Earth
Start Date: March 08, 2011

During a transit from San Francisco Bay to the Port of Los Angeles on 26 February 2004, the cargo ship M/V Med Taipei weathered a storm but lost fifteen 40-ft shipping containers in MBNMS, and another nine south of the sanctuary. One of these containers was discovered by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) on 9 June 2004 on Smooth Ridge at a depth of 1,281 meters, 17.5 nm NW of Point Pinos (Figure 1).

This was not an isolated incident. Containerized maritime trade grew eight-fold from 1985 to 2007, and worldwide there are now approximately 5 to 6 million containers in transit at any given moment. An estimated 10,000 shipping containers are lost at sea every year, often due to the nexus of rough seas and inadequate or faulty securing mechanisms. Many containers are not weighed prior to loading, resulting in extreme forces being placed on container stacks when bad weather strikes. Depending on the cargo, containers may float at the surface for several days or weeks prior to sinking. Unfortunately, it is not mandatory to report container losses to all relevant management agencies.

On 26 July 2006, a $3.25 million settlement with the vessel’s owners and operators was announced for long-term damage to sanctuary resources. One of the diverse mitigation projects identified during the settlement negotiation process called for monitoring of the impacts, natural habitat recovery rate, and decomposition rate/characteristics of container TGHU7712262. In March 2011 and December 2013, a science team led by Dr. Andrew DeVogelaere (MBNMS) and Dr. James Barry (MBARI) conducted research expeditions aboard MBARI’s R/V Western Flyer.

The remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Doc Ricketts was deployed to address the following goals:
• Assess the container’s current condition by gathering high-resolution imagery
• Describe sea life on the container and at different distances from it
• Assess toxicity of paint that has chipped off of the container
• Continue to bring public attention to this deep-sea phenomenon that has been increasing with economic globalization and increased shipping

Summary to Date

Visual surveys and biological community assessments using the ROV Doc Ricketts indicated that the fallen container has likely contributed to ecological impacts at three different scales:
• Upon impact with the seafloor, there was clearly an immediate crushing of any organisms present on the seafloor;
• Taxa on, and immediately adjacent to, the container were different from those that are further away, suggesting that the introduction of hard substratum caused local changes in ecology; and
• This and other lost containers comprise an expanding benthic footprint, which may be serving as hard substratum “stepping stones in the deep,” facilitating the migration of species requiring hard substrate.

In addition, the container showed little sign of wear or decay after seven years at depth (Figure 4), however there was more observed growth (biota) on the container in the second visit in 2013. Released container contents – many of which are toxic – can cause contamination, but in this case the cargo of 1,159 steel-belted tires had not escaped. The thousands of containers already on the seafloor will likely be there for many hundreds of years and will be joined by thousands more each year, leading to high cumulative impacts.

Other findings included:
• The muddy sand seafloor at 1,281 m is a smooth seascape, with delicate tube worms every few inches, abundant lacey-white sea cucumbers, and red sea pens.
• We discovered an association between sea pigs (Scotoplanes) and juvenile lithodid crabs.
• Humans are impacting this deep-sea environment before we even understand what species live there and how the ecosystem functions.
• The container is showing signs of rust in damaged areas after 9 years on the seafloor.
• A scientific paper, currently under review, documents a 80 x 80 ft halo around the container where infauna were impacted.

Monitoring Trends

  • The container shows some small signs of decay after 9 years at a depth of 1281 meters.
  • Colonization of the container is limited to several species, but has increased from 2011 to 2013.


Time demands placed on the shipping industry mean that safety protocols and securing methods have not kept pace with increasing container ship capacities. The navigational hazards and marine debris/contamination associated with container loss are already the subject of discussion in the European Union. In 2014, the U.S. Coast Guard proposed new rules for standardizing how cargo is secured on international shipping routes. Through research on a single container lost and found in the MBNMS, we have altered the global discussion on container loss by raising previously unaddressed issues.

Scientists, governments, and the shipping industry are now aware that in addition to container loss being a problem of trash on beaches and threats to human life, it is an issue of impacts to deep-sea ecology and potentially creating a corridor of habitat for spreading species in the depths below shipping highways. Because of the public’s fascination with deep-sea exploration and the container’s connections to the global economy and our own consumption, this story has captured the interest of people around the country and around the world. We are hopeful that this research can be used to leverage support for reforms to container securing regulations, to continue to educate the public about the beauty of the deep sea, and to increase awareness of the impacts of our own consumption.

Study Parameters

  • Habitat
  • Diversity
  • Dispersal & Recruitment
  • Range/Biogeography
  • Habitat association
  • Non-indigenous species
  • Disturbance
  • Predation
  • Competition
  • Abundance
  • Distribution
  • Density
  • Temperature
  • Salinity
  • Substrate characterization
  • Geological characterization

Study Methods

Visual surveys using ROV Doc Ricketts
Biological community surveys
Assessment of macrofauna and megafauna on and around the container
Analysis of chemistry and grain size of sediments at different distances from the container with the use of push cores
Assessment of macrofauna living within sediment near and far from the container with the use of push cores

Figures and Images

Figure 1. The reported position of the container ship M/V Med Taipei when it lost 15 containers overboard on February 26, 2004 (orange circle). One of these containers landed on the seafloor, just outside of Monterey Bay (red star). Map credit: Chad King, MNBMS.

Figure 2. ROV Doc Ricketts being launched for the journey to the container site. Photo credit: MBARI.

Figure 3. Several deep-sea species colonized the container as this photo from 2011 shows. Sunken shipping containers may be serving as hard substratum “stepping stones in the deep,” enabling the migration of species that require hard substrate, which is scarce in much of the deep sea. Photo credit: MBARI/MBNMS.

Figure 4. Container TGHU7712262 in 2004 (left) and in 2011 (right). Although colonized by various deep-sea species such as Neptunea snails, the container appeared to be in good structural condition. Photo credit: MBARI/MBNMS.

Figure 5. A previously unknown association between juvenile crabs and sea pigs (2011). Photo credit: MBARI/MBNMS.

Figure 6. Close-up photos of just some of the many colorful and diverse life found on the container in MBNMS' second visit in December 2013.

Table 1. Taxa observed on container differed substantially from species identified on surrounding seafloor (from 2011 survey).