On Feb. 25, 2004, the container vessel Med Taipei headed south through 30-foot swells on its way from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Rolling violently, the freighter lost 15 containers inside the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

A research dive by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute six months later came across one of the containers and traced its serial number back to the Med Taipei. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration settled with the shipping company for $3.25 million, and used the money to fund pioneering research on the impact of fallen cargo on deep-sea environments.

In early March 2011, the MBARI team returned to observe the organisms on and around the Med Taipei container. What they found was a micro-ecosystem in a “no man’s land” of soft, silty sea floor. Marine snails used the hard container to lay eggs as king crabs feed on the congregating gastropods.

Sanctuary spokesman Scott Kathey says the observations give scientists insight into how the 10,000 shipping containers dropped every year could affect the deep sea’s mysterious ecology. Containers could create “stepping stones” across the sea floor as freighters follow similar shipping lanes and continue losing cargo, he says.

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The artificial topography could help invasive species traverse areas they couldn’t before, creating problems for sensitive ecosystems.

One could argue the containers create oases of diversity in desert-like stretches of ocean floor. But Kathey says diversity is not always a good thing; sometimes habitats dominated by few species are just as important as those with a variety of interconnected species.

So it’s hard for him to find a bright side to man-made shipping containers littering a protected marine sanctuary: “From our perspective, we can’t find anything good about them.”

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