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Despite — and perhaps because of — the massive size of today’s container ships, bad weather can create major problems, including the loss of containers to the depths below. That was especially true in 2020 and 2021, when weather-related incidents contributed to an average loss of 3,113 containers during that two-year timeframe. In November 2020, more than 1800 containers headed overboard into the Pacific from a single ship — the ONE Apus — during severe weather. The following year, approximately 750 containers on the Maersk Essen suffered a similar fate under similar conditions. 

Although the recently released annual report from the World Shipping Council (WSC) on lost containers at sea indicates a welcome and significant drop for 2023, even one container adrift can create all kinds of problems — including navigational and environmental safety hazards. In that light, the creation of new lost container mandatory reporting requirements issued by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have been welcome news. 

A new standard for maritime safety

In a recent press release detailing the new regulations, the WSC said it “applauds the recent adoption of amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) by the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Maritime Safety Committee (MSC 108).”

The new regulations will go into effect on January 1, 2026, “setting a new standard for maritime safety and environmental protection,” according to the organization. 

“The new regulations, specifically amending SOLAS Chapter V Regulations 31 and 32, mark a significant advancement in maritime safety and environmental protection. By ensuring prompt and detailed reporting of lost and drifting containers, these amendments will enhance navigational safety, facilitate swift response actions, and mitigate potential environmental hazards,” says Lars Kjaer, SVP Safety & Security for the WSC. 

The WSC says key provisions of the new regulations include: 

Regulation 31 – Reporting by the Master of the Ship 

  • The Master of a ship involved in the loss of containers must immediately and thoroughly report specific details to nearby ships, the nearest coastal state, and the flag State.
  • The flag State will then pass this information to the IMO via a new module in the Global Integrated Shipping Information System (GISIS).
  • Masters of ships that observe drifting containers must report it to nearby ships and the nearest coastal state.

Regulation 32 – Reporting Details

For Containers Lost at Sea: 

  • Reports must be made ASAP, with updates as more information becomes available.
  • A final count of lost containers must be confirmed after a thorough inspection.
  • Mandatory details include the position of the lost containers, the total number lost, and if any contained dangerous goods. Additional descriptive info is required if possible.
  • Masters can also share voluntary details about the cargo, sea conditions, and more.

For Drifting Containers Observed 

  • Reports must include the position and total number of containers spotted drifting.
  • Additional voluntary details similar to those for lost containers can be provided if available.

“The changes to SOLAS now put in place show the IMO’s commitment to improving maritime safety and environmental stewardship,” the WSC says. “By mandating detailed and timely reporting, as the WSC has been advocating, the maritime community can better tackle the challenges of lost containers, ensuring safer navigation and protecting our oceans.” 

Containers Lost at Sea Report – 2024 Update

On June 11, the WSC announced the results of its most recent Containers Lost at Sea Report — which revealed a major drop in numbers with only 221 containers lost in 2023: “While this is the lowest number recorded since the survey began in 2008, the WSC underscores the ongoing need for stringent safety measures and constant vigilance, as every container lost at sea is one too many.” 

Findings revealed that “221 containers were lost at sea in 2023 out of 250 million containers transported, a reduction from the previous lowest-ever loss of 661 containers in 2022,” and of those lost, about 33% were recovered.  

However, the organization noted that complacency isn’t an option, despite the improved numbers. 

“The progress made in 2023 is encouraging, but it highlights the continuous need for dedication to safety protocols and preventive measures,” the WSC said. In addition to the new mandatory reporting requirements, it described another key initiative aimed at preventing loss of containers at sea: the MARIN TopTier Joint Industry Project

Marin TopTier Joint Industry Project

Kicked off on May 18, 2021, MARIN’s TopTier Joint Industry Project is a three-year initiative focused on “drastically reducing the numbers of containers lost overboard and re-establishing the confidence in safe container operations,” according to a press release issued at the time.

Noting that the TopTier initiative aimed to build on MARIN’s Lashing@Sea Joint Industry Project that ran from 2006 to 2009, MARIN said in the announcement that a “series of recent incidents shows that scale effects and increased economic pressure are pushing container operations beyond safe boundaries.”

“Cargo securing safety relies not only on ships being operated inside their design margins, but also on the quality of calculation models to determine these margins, the reliability of hard input facts as weights, stow configuration, strength ratings, and a regulatory infrastructure to ensure that each of these comply to minimal standards,” MARIN said, noting that TopTier would review these dynamics within the three-year scope of the project, which would be conducted in four phases: 

  • Phase 1 (started in Summer 2021) — addressed the “current practice, recent large scale incidents and a gap analysis in order to report first recommendations for operational improvements before fall”
  • Phase 2 — included ”investigations such as lab testing and measurements campaigns on board”
  • Phase 3 — where “new technologies, design rates, calculation models and best practice will be developed and verified”
  • Phase 4 — will “implement the findings and submit to international regulatory bodies such as IMO, ISO and IACS through–and supported by–participating organisations.”

In its Containers Lost at Sea Report – 2024 Update, the WSC says that TopTier has “contributed concrete outcomes on the causes of containers overboard together with recommendations and training material on how to avoid and manage different kinds of dangerous parametric rolling.”

According to the WSC, TopTier’s final report is due to be published later this year with “conclusions and recommendations arising from extensive scientific research and analyses, providing industry best practices, updated safety, container and lashing standards, guidance and recommendations for regulatory updates.”

For more information, visit the TopTier website.  

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