Food Afloat: When Cargo Goes Missing at Sea.

By: Hannah L. Walters

What does the ocean floor look like?

You might imagine a bluish abyss, or brilliantly colored coral reefs with fish that dart and wiggle from a hidden sanctuary to join their school.

How about rusty shipping containers, jutting out and noticeably angular along a sandy plane of undulating seaweed?

Last week, a shipping container from the lost El Faro washed ashore on the Bahamas. Deodorant, body washes and other random materials from within the ship’s container had been found along the beach as well.

The loss of the 33 lives aboard El Faro make the ship’s sinking particularly tragic. It is a reminder of the perils that still exist at sea, which many of us here on land rarely realize. These perils extend to seafarers, ships, wildlife and cargo.

Give a quick look at the website or Twitter feed of OCEANUSlive and you’ll see a list of alerts scroll along in red font: Gunmen board a container ship in West Africa; A watchman reports suspicious activity near a ship in South America; Men with long knives board another ship in West Africa.

"NZ Defence Force assistance to OP Rena " by New Zealand Defence Force from Wellington, New Zealand. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.  

"NZ Defence Force assistance to OP Rena " by New Zealand Defence Force from Wellington, New Zealand. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.  

Rose George has spent five weeks on a container ship, learning the ins and outs of global container shipping while writing her book “Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Brings You Ninety Percent of Everything.”

In an article George wrote in the beginning of the year, she explains that shipwrecks happen far more often than we think. The trade organization IHS Maritime reported that 85 out of 138 ship losses in 2013 were due to a ship outright sinking (versus being retired from service or deemed broken beyond repair). That’s more than one ship sinking per week, and more than two ships lost total per week.

The amount of cargo lost along with these vessels, however, is disputed. Many quick Google searches bring up the number of containers as 10,000 per year, but the World Shipping Council conducted a survey in 2014, which put the number of containers lost from 500 to more than 5,000 containers from 2008 to 2014. The variance in the number of containers lost each year depends on what, if any, sea catastrophes have occurred in a particular year.

Photo by Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain]

Photo by Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain]

Whenever ships sink or lose a shipping container, whatever contents were inside — perhaps cement, fertilizer or more toxic chemicals — are too lost into the ocean, subjecting wildlife and marine flora to these pollutants and plastic or metal debris.

The ocean is the Wild West through which our stuff moves, and it is a bustling Wild West at that. Ninety percent of all goods are transported by sea inside shipping containers. That “stuff” includes our food. Often the containers on one of these cargo ships might have  frozen fish that have been deboned in China and then refrozen to be shipped to a retailer. That same ship could have containers of bulk grains, or thousands of boxes of crackers. More than 200 million shipping containers are in use today, a single one of which can accommodate 48,000 bananas.

What’s difficult to ascertain is just how much of the cargo lost at sea is actually food cargo, versus inedible stuff. Even though items are packed strategically and systematically into shipping containers — pallets of goods need to fit together with the least amount of wasted space — and the shipping containers are loaded onto ships in a particular order so that refrigerated containers are near electrical sources, and containers with certain explosive materials won’t be stored near others, ship captains rarely know what goods they’re actually hauling. A container deck might have everything from bananas to car tires to printers to human plasma to juice boxes to apples.

Only a few people in a control tower, and their computers, actually have a list of what cargo is on what ships. Some manufacturers, importers and exporters can track their shipments, but the people who are closest to the cargo during one of its longest odysseys, and who might witness the loss of the cargo, are the ones who know the least. 

How much food, do you imagine, might bob to the surface in the middle of the ocean without anyone aware?