The rise of ‘mega-ships’ (often defined as ships with a capacity greater than 10,000 TEUs) took place in earnest during the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. In their search for greater fuel efficiency and economies of scale, the world’s container carriers increasingly ordered larger and larger vessels, especially for use on the Asia-Europe trade lane.
Until the development of mega-ships, carriers that sought to service the East Coast of North America with the earlier generation of ‘post-Panamax’ ships needed to transit the Suez Canal because those vessels were too big to sail through the Panama Canal.
With the gradual introduction of the mega-ships, the average capacity of container ships deployed on the Asia-Europe trade lane has become especially large.
Despite the cost-effectiveness of mega-ships, some major North American ports have faced the challenge of mitigating the bottlenecks at marine terminals that result from container exchanges involving such massive volumes of cargo.
At sea, other sorts of challenges may stem from the fact that there are so many containers on these huge vessels. Several high-profile (even deadly) fires on mega-ships have highlighted the dangers of packing so many containers onto a single vessel, while driving up related insurance costs. In addition, the enormous capacity of such mega-ships often raises the probability that dangerous goods may have been loaded aboard.
Several fires on board container ships have been caused by hazardous or flammable cargo that was misdeclared. One of the most common culprits is calcium hypochlorite, used to treat drinking water and swimming pools. While this chemical may be carried on board ships, there are stringent guidelines regarding how it should be carried. Some less scrupulous shippers have misdeclared it as fertilizer or as other more stable compounds in order to avoid paying a higher freight rate.
Alerted to such risks, ship operators, insurers and regulators are increasingly focusing on the chemicals, batteries and other goods that can trigger or feed a fire.