Shipping containers lost off Port Stephens pose major environmental problems

EACH year, more than 1500 container ships head in and out of Port Botany, many of them voyaging up and down the east coast on their travels. While there is always the chance that a small loss of cargo – especially of empty containers – might go unreported, it’s fair to say that the container trade is usually not one of our major environmental culprits.

But the loss last week of more than 80 containers from the YM Efficiency has created a serious and multi-dimensional environmental problem that is only now starting to properly unfold.

As well as the coastal impact from a number of damaged containers and their cargoes washing up on the shore, there’s the equally troublesome problem created by those containers that are still out to sea.

Experience shows intact containers are likely to float for some time, often just below the surface. In this state, they are obvious dangers to shipping and to smaller vessels: to any trawlers or pleasure boats that may be in the area.

Then there’s the question of what to do about those containers that find their way to the bottom, with the Newcastle fishermen’s co-op concerned about the safety impacts of trawlers accidentally hooking up to the massive steel snags and tipping over.

While the fishing industry is understandably focused on the containers themselves, there is also the worry about the potential for the plastic debris now washing through the area to impact on marine life, especially on larger animals such as whales that might accidentally swallow or become entangled with the floating rubbish.

For now, it appears that the insurance companies involved with the vessel and its cargo will pay for a clean-up, but Australian authorities will have to be vigilant and determined to ensure that the cost is not transferred to taxpayers. From any angle, this is shaping to be an expensive exercise. 

Already, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority has requested Australian Defence Force help to locate the missing containers. Given that they may well be resting in 100 metres of water or more, retrieving them is likely to prove an interesting exercise.

Although ships and their cargoes have been going to the bottom of the sea since time immemorial, most people would say that leaving the containers where they lie would not be an adequate response in this day and age, regardless of how well the rest of the rubbish is cleaned up.

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