Reporting Lost Containers is now Mandatory

Picture by nikko osaka for Unsplash

Last week, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) fixed one of the largest oversights in its standards: the reporting of lost shipping containers.

Now, ship masters will be responsible for the swift and accurate reporting of all lost containers at sea. That, at least, will be the case starting in January 2026 when the official rule is meant to take effect. 

The rule itself marks a change from the previous expectations that carriers and ship operators would self-report and make public whenever a container went missing. At a minimum, such would be the expectation in the case of containers full of cargo, letting the shipper and consignee know that their goods were lost at sea. But, in such cases, there is no expectation of sharing the information with external parties not considered in the original shipping arrangement. Empty containers, on the other hand, represent an even more opaque scenario. Since those containers likely belong to the shipping company itself or a freight forwarder, it is likely that their loss would only result in an internal effort to account for their disappearance without sharing with the rest of carriers.

Without a clear expectation of reporting, thousands of ships will sail through the seas unaware of potential obstacles resulting from lost cargo in neighboring vessels. This could, in turn, result in potential accidents or disruptions to existing supply chains. Not to mention the clear environmental impact from dumping materials into the ocean floor. 

To date, the most ambitious effort to report missing containers has been led by the World Shipping Council (WSC) which annually releases a report on the number of missing containers from its member associations. In total, the WSC estimates that they represent some 90% of the total number of containers at sea, allowing them to put together the most comprehensive dataset to date on lost containers.

Through the WSC numbers, we now that overall losses of shipping containers have been steadily decreasing since 2021, reaching just 221 lost containers in 2023. The numbers, however, are highly volatile and, rather than following broad trends, seem to be subject to one off events where a shipping incident results in the loss of a large number of containers. Such, for instance, was the case in 2013 when the sinking of the MOL Comfort caused the loss of 4,293 containers.

Lost Containers as Reported by the WSC (Auba Estimates pre-2020)

A line graph showing the number of containers lost at sea between 2013 and 2024.

(Data from the World Shipping Council)

However, despite the overall completeness of the WSC data, it might be missing a considerable number of actors not subject to international standards and regulations. Since WSC members are expected to report lost vessels, they might be better trained in safety precautions as well. That is, it could well be the case that the remaining 10% of shipping containers not accounted for are more prone to accidents. We simply don’t know.

Now, with the new IMO regulations, all 176 member states have an obligation to immediately report missing containers to the organization. With this, the shipping industry will have accurate information on lost containers for the first time in its history, opening the door for better regulation and the enforcement of safety practices in companies prone to lose shipping containers. Not to mention that shipping companies will have better insights of where containers are lost at sea and when such losses might disrupt trade.