Human beings have used the oceans as a trade route and playground for millennia, since man found he could get from A to B even when there wasn’t a land bridge. To this day our many sea-going friends both commercial and sporting/leisure travel the oceans in fair weather and foul.
So, why do we take the Oceans so much for granted?
Because they are so vast?
Because they are in our collective blood?
Maybe all of these and a good deal more.
A current major hazard to sailing craft at sea is the number of semi-submerged cargo containers that are increasingly adrift on the high seas. It has been estimated by the World Shipping Council in the period between 2008 and 2013 that there were 546 containers lost at sea each year – not counting catastrophic events. Including such catastrophic events the figure rose to 1,679 containers adrift.
A shipping container may sink completely or it may float for an indefinite period depending upon the contents, and how watertight the container is. Shipping Containers vary in size up to a mighty 53 feet in length or as ‘little’ as 20 feet long. A 40 ft long shipping container for example would have a Tare (Unladen) weight of 5071 lbs and a Laden weight capacity in the region of 55126 lbs – c 24 tonnes. Laden or not, such a huge obstacle would have the potential to rip out the bottom of a large sailing boat and to completely demolish a smaller craft. These items may fall over the side of container carrying ships that have been badly loaded, or because of high seas destabilizing the load, and may not even be missed. Either way they may quickly become invisible to the naked eye even if there is a deck watch-which seems to be a rarity. Often shipping containers are painted in dull browns and green colors, and even to the sharpest yacht skipper may be virtually invisible.
Because the loss of these items is random, and unreported most often, the insurers will pick up to tab, captains are under the cosh to reach their destination – and ignorance is bliss. It is left to the ocean going boating community to be aware of the dangers and keep a good look out for them. Hope for the best and plan for the worst!
Intercontinental containership routes and their proximity would carry the greatest risk, radar watch is of course vital, but these monsters of floating scrap iron can lie just below the reach of most radar arrays, making them the worst of all worlds.
It never fails to appal Ocean loving souls that such junk can just be lost at sea but it is true.
For far too long ‘we’ have treated the Oceans as a dumping ground, because they are seen as an infinite resource man has thrown his waste into the Ocean. Anything so vast is too big to ruin, and so for decades ‘we’ have thrown broken equipment, fishing nets, and spent containers into the sea making it someone else’s problem to clean up. Or not.
But what of the contents of lost shipping containers, does anyone know what they contain? Because they are relatively ubiquitous and anonymous who knows what they have on board, radioactive materials, heavy metals, even people – it is known that people smugglers have used them for their evil business. Toxic materials abound in our Oceans pushing them to breaking point.
Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium have calculated that shellfish lovers are eating up to 11,000 plastic fragments in their seafood each year.
Whilst, researchers from around the world pooled data over six years to 2013, and reached the conclusion that there are already more than five trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans, most of them microplastics. Plastic micro fragments will not sink your boat, but the super fresh fish that you have just caught and are cooking for dinner may well contain the makings of carcinoma.
In 2008, the Scientific American reported that there were dead zones in the Pacific Ocean meaning there was not enough oxygen to support life and this extends worldwide. This is the stuff of nightmares. One dead zone is too many, should we reach a tipping point where they all join together it would be catastrophic.
In 2010, scientists lamented the stunning amount of toxic materials and heavy metals — including aluminium, chromium, titanium, mercury, silver and lead — discovered in whales that lived thousands of miles away from civilization.
According to a report by Common Dreams, these “pollutants were threatening the human food supply.”
The Japanese nuclear power plant disaster at Fukushima has spread radioactive contaminated waste into the open seas causing immense pollution, death to many species of fish including whales and we believe is a potential threat to the West Coast of The US in the process.
Surely, action needs to be taken to grasp this particular nettle, we need to stop allowing all waste being dumped at sea especially on an industrial scale, we must stop pollutants of all kinds from entering the water, including up-stream in our river systems, every container or canister contains or is made of materials that are potentially destructive and/or toxic causing potentially irreversible damage to sea-life and human life by way of consumption.
But, we need a greater international initiative to create proactive policy to making shippers, shipping lines and their clients take 100% more responsibility. Increased insurance cost could help and a refusal to ‘nod through’ the loss of such items, if the insurers refused to indemnify the owners and shippers maybe greater care would be taken. Goods in the shops may cost a tad more, but we all need to grasp this particular nettle.
Greater use of beacons attached to shipping containers that would alert shipping would help, a radar beacon costing cents to supply may well prove to be a life saver. Plus, it would make salvage operations easier, if there is money in their retrieval no doubt someone would be interested in making a buck or two.
Also, our sailing community, and smaller commercial shipping/fishing vessels, need to be on the lookout for large semi-submerged debris, if snagged in fishing gear maybe not cut the tackle and debris clear but take it to a place of safety, having found the item mark it on the charts, and inform coastal authorities of its whereabouts.
How deep is our Ocean? How Clean is our sea?
If people continue as they have in recent times this wonderful resource may become one large dead zone where the animals and plants that live there simply cease to exist, and then we will be in major trouble, globally. The Oceans generate oxygen for the whole of mankind we cannot let them die, but we are doing just that.
Author: Roger J Langley
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