The vast majority of the deep seafloor isunseen, and completely remote from human experience. But it is not immune to the impacts of humanactivities. Around the world, coastal and internationalcargo ships make hundreds of thousands of trips annually. Each ship may transport thousandsof standard shipping containers, resulting in hundreds of millions of container tripsper year. These numbers are only growing with increased global population. Most of this cargo arrives at its destinationsafely as scheduled. However, the routes traveled by cargo ships can be treacherous, and containerloss is difficult to prevent.
ItÃ•s estimated that thousands of containersare lost each year as they are transported along international shipping routes. Whilethis is a small percentage of the containers being transported, the impact on the healthof our ocean is uncertain. During a remotely operated vehicle dive inJune 2004, MBARI scientists came upon one of these lost containers. The tracking information printed on the containerwas used to determine that it was lost just four months prior, from the cargo vessel MedTaipei. Because the container was found within the boundaries of Monterey Bay National MarineSanctuary, there was particular interest in
determining the circumstances of its loss.The Med Taipei, sailing from the Port of Oakland, reported that fifteen containers were lostwithin the sanctuary boundaries during a strong winter storm, and another nine were lost beforereaching port in Long Beach. Coming across a shipping container in thedeep sea is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. A partnership between MBARI andthe Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary has taken advantage of this unique opportunityto learn more about the presumed effects of a single container on deepsea ecosystems.Scientists returned to the site seven years later to investigate the communities of animalson and around the container.
The seafloor near the found shipping containeris dominated by relatively longlived soft coralsÃ‘sea pens, sea whips, and anemonesÃ‘anda sea cucumber, called the sea pig. However, the container was found to be wellcolonized by animals typically found on rock outcrops in the region, as if it were an islandof hard substrate in a sea of soft sediment. The most abundant animals on the containerwere tubebuilding worms. Numerous young scallops were also present. The container seemed toprovide a useful hard surface for a marine snail to lay its egg cases on. While all of these animals are found on hardsurfaces in nearby areas, the abundance and
diversity of animal species on the containerÃ‘andthe seafloor up to 10 meters awayÃ‘was lower than that typically encountered in the area. This reduced biodiversity may be due in partto the absence of some animals found in rocky habitats in the region including longlivedsponges, corals, and feather stars none of which were observed during our survey of thecontainer. The absence of sponges and corals suggeststhat either, seven years is a relatively short timeframe for colonization by some deepseaanimals, or, the potential toxicity of the containerÃ•s zincbased paint could determore sensitive animals from settling on its
surface. We are just beginning to look intothe potential toxicity associated with this container. The lower number of animals close to the containermay be related to several processes, including changes in nearbottom currents around thecontainer, its role as a refuge for some species, and changes in the influence of predatorsand scavengers near the container. The presence of lost shipping containers ondeep seafloor ecosystems is a consequence of human activities that is rarely seen oreven considered. This study sheds light on the importance of basic research to understandthe structure and function of deepsea habitats.