Jack Sparrow had a bit of an ego – and for good reason. The Caribbean seas in which he swashbuckled 300 years ago, downing merchant ships for their loot as he plied the water, were dangerous, full of rival pirates low on morals.
Today, though, Sparrow would have less to brag about. In a new study released by WWF, the Caribbean didn’t make the list of most dangerous seas. Neither did the Bermuda Triangle, despite persistent urban legends.
Instead, the South China Sea and East Indies, the east Mediterranean and Black Sea, and the North Sea and British Isles were found to be the hotspots for watery disaster, not from piracy, but from the high frequency of shipping accidents that imperil both human and marine life.
At the same time as ocean traffic has steadily increased worldwide, oversight of the industry has failed to keep pace, according to the report. The problem is especially acute near Southeast Asia, where cargo carriers make quick trips between the region’s booming, but often poorly regulated, ports. Over the last decade, the South China Sea has had more shipping accidents than any other water body, according to the report.
That uptick in ocean traffic, and the lack of global cooperation to manage the congestion, has also come with climate change and more bouts of extreme weather. About half of all accidents today are caused by when a boat founders, leaks, or splits in two, according to the report.
That’s troubling news. Beneath those ships – often ferrying black gold – is a different kind of treasure: coral reefs, like Asia’s Coral Triangle. Douses of oil or other toxic substances from wrecked ships can do serious environmental damage to those underwater cities bustling centers of marine life.
“Since 1999 there have been 293 shipping accidents in the South China Sea and east Indies, home of the Coral Triangle and 76 per cent of the world’s coral species,” said Simon Walmsley, Marine Manger at WWF International, in a press release.
Overall, shipping accidents are down 27 percent worldwide over the past decade, according to a January report from Allianz Global Corporate and Specialty Insurance. One hundred and six ships sank last year, up from 91 the previous year. On average, 146 ships are lost each year, the report said.
"As the global fleet continues to expand rapidly and begins to operate routinely in more risky areas the probability of accidents and likely severity of impacts will again increase unless precautionary measures are put in place to address identifiable risk factors,” said the press release.
In 2002, in one of the worst accidents, the Prestige oil tanker sank off the Spanish coast when one of its tanks burst, plunging 70,000 tons of oil into the Atlantic Ocean.
“The Prestige oil spill caused not only environmental impacts but economic losses estimated at €8 billion [about $10.5 billion]. Even small scale accidents in very sensitive environments, like the Great Barrier Reef, can have profound environmental consequences.” said Dr Walmsley, in a press release.
Not all accidents involve an oil spill: fishing vessels account for about a quarter of sunk ships, and general cargo ships account for roughly half percent of lost vessels. Still, depending on the product the ship was carrying, those sinkings can still have consequences for fragile marine ecosystems.
Feel guilty, Jack Sparrow.