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What to do against ships losing containers at sea?

EXPLANATION – The ship MSC Zoe lost 270 containers in the North Sea on the night of 1st January 2nd. Some contained pollutants. Explanation.

► What happened in the North Sea?

During a violent storm he faced in the night of 1st as of January 2, the ship MSC Zoe, one of the largest container ships in the world, has lost about 270 containers off the Wadden Islands in the North Sea. Only thirty of them were found, stranded on German and Dutch beaches, as well as the load they were carrying.

The local population and the army launched operations of cleaning of the coasts but this accident is already the cause of multiple pollutions, with the arrival on these beaches of objects of all kinds: televisions, spare parts of cars, toys, but also plastic and polystyrene.

"The exact number of missing containers is unknown and many containers may have sunk to the bottom of the ocean"recognizes the shipowner whose ship was flying the Panamanian flag. Some of the lost "boxes" contain toxic materials. A bag of organic peroxide, an extremely flammable substance that can be a source of irritation and burns, used in particular in the manufacture of plastics, polystyrene and PVC, has been found in particular.

Life aboard a container ship

The shipping company MSC, the world's second largest container ship owner, has promised to reimburse "All costs" cleaning and "Committed to continuing to search for containers that have fallen overboard until the last one is found". Dutch justice has opened an investigation.

► Is the maritime transport of goods safe?

The number of containers lost at sea each year is not known precisely. " It varies, depending on the year, between 5,000 and 10,000, for a total of 500 to 600 million transportedexplains marine expert Pierre Maupoint de Vandeul, based on figures from the Alphaliner database. The MSC Zoe can ship 19 200. "

" What is lost is a drop in the ocean Confirms Jean-Pierre Scouarnec, president of the Euro Docks Services port handling company. " The containers are fixed to the boat and kept between them from a certain height ", details Pierre Maupoint of Vendeul. " There is no risk of losing them under normal conditions, but if you encounter a raging seathey can be torn off ", Recognizes Jean-Pierre Scouarnec.

The transport of dangerous goods is itself framed by a specific code (IMDG for International maritime dangerous goods). They are placed in certain clearly identified areas of the boat.

Today, specialized companies propose to equip the containers of chips to locate them once fallen in the water. "But the probability of losing is so low that no one will equip all the containers ", Points out Pierre Maupoint de Vandeul.

► Who is responsible for lost containers?

Containers adrift are a real danger to navigation. They may be responsible for collisions. " The risk is even greater, says Jean-Pierre Scouarnec, they are difficult to spot: they do not really float but are in the middle and are not detectable by navigation radars. "

" When containers are declared lost at sea off the French coast, the relevant Regional Operational Monitoring and Rescue Center (Cross) sends notices to navigation to indicate areas of heightened alertnessexplains Pierre Maupoint de Vandeul. And it is the shipowner who is in charge of launching the search operations, in connection with the maritime prefecture and the Cross. "

However, says this expert, " In maritime transport, there is a limitation of liability clause vis-à-vis the customer. Often, in the case of loss of containers, it is a case of force majeure, unpredictable and insurmountable, which go beyond what was foreseen in the contract. "

When containers are lost, " the shipowner may be ordered to search for them, for reasons of safety, particularly in areas of significant navigation ", continues Pierre Maupoint de Vandeul. The law on the management of shipwrecks provides that " the State may have the necessary measures carried out at the expense and risk of the shipowner "

If the loss takes place offshore, in international waters, the resources deployed are not so extensive, especially since the cost of research is often higher than the cost of the goods. " If a ship loses containers in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, recognizes Jean-Pierre Scouarnec, no one will go looking for them. "


The development of container ships

– Maritime freight transport accounted for 80% of world trade volume in 2017, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Maritime Transport Study.

– The three main world shipowners are the Danish Maersk, the Swiss MSC and the French CMA-CGM respectively.

– The world fleet has grown from 2,600 to nearly 5,200 container ships in the last 18 years. The largest of these vessels can carry up to 21,400 containers.

– Created in 1956, these metal boxes, with regulated dimensions in 1967 (20, 30 or 40 feet), are used today to transport all kinds of goods: clothing, toys, food products, dangerous goods …

Clément Grillet



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