Lost Shipping Containers Home to Unique Communities

Written by on May 19, 2014 in Marine Life

In February 2004, severe winds and seas along the California coast dislodged 24 shipping containers from the cargo vessel Med Taipei. Fifteen of those containers were lost within the boundaries of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Four months later, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) scientists discovered one of the containers on the seafloor, 1,3000 meters (4,200 feet) below the surface.

Sunken shipping container.

Sunken shipping container. Photo credit: 2011 MBARI/NOAA.

In the first-ever survey of its kind, researchers from MBARI and the sanctuary describe how deep-sea animal communities form on and around the container, and how they differ from surrounding communities.

In 2011, a research team used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to collect extensive video footage of the container, as well as seafloor sediment samples at various locations around the container. They compared the animals found on the container, on the nearby seafloor, and on the seafloor extending 500 meters away from the container and found that its presence “caused shifts in animal communities” in four main ways. The shipping container provided:

  1. a hard surface for sessile animals to colonize
  2. a physical obstacle that affects local bottom currents
  3. a high spot on the seafloor that attracts predators
  4. a possible source of toxic material

The hard surface of the container acted somewhat like a rocky reef where tubeworms, scallops, snails and tunicates attached themselves. The researchers were surprised to learn that several types of animals found on nearby rocky reefs, such as sponges and soft corals, hadn’t colonized the surface. They speculate that this could be because these creatures are slow-growing and didn’t have enough time since the container settled, or perhaps that some of the animals are sensitive to the “potentially toxic effects of corrosion-resistant coatings” found on shipping containers.

Deep-sea crabs crawl around the base of the sunken container.

Deep-sea crabs crawl around the base of the sunken container. Photo credit: 2011 MBARI/NOAA.

On the nearby seafloor (within about 10 meters/32 feet), deep-sea snails in the genus Neptunea, and some crabs and fish were more abundant than in surrounding areas. There were also more seafloor predators near the container, which could explain changes in the kinds of animals found nearby.

The research team will continue to monitor conditions on and around the container in the future in order to see what changes develop over time, if more diverse communities develop, and what role the toxic material plays.

“We have only begun to characterize the potential long-term impacts of a single container on a deep-sea community. Although the effects of one container may seem small, the thousands of shipping containers lost on the seafloor each year could eventually become a significant source of pollution for deep-sea ecosystems,” lead author Josi Taylor said in a news release.

In addition to learning more about deep-sea communities, this study is also helping government agencies formulate better standards for weighing, stacking, and securing shipping containers.

To learn more:

Copyright © 2014 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. She is also a PADI diver and dog lover. .

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