Opinion: Why ‘black swans’ are behind the Key Bridge and other shipping disasters

Editor’s Note: Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history at Campbell University, a former merchant mariner, the host of “What’s Going on With Shipping” on YouTube and contributor to gCaptain maritime. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

The allision between the container ship MV Dali and the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore on Tuesday has prompted numerous questions — not only about how this tragedy occurred, but also about our global shipping processes. After all, “black swan” events like this — major events that are unpredictable but, in hindsight, inevitable — are supposed to be rare and infrequent, yet over the past few years, it appears that a flock of black swans have had set their sights on disrupting the global supply chain.

Sal Mercogliano - Bennett Scarborough
Sal Mercogliano - Bennett Scarborough

These incidents have a cumulative impact on trade. As we have seen over the past decades, the free seas, the outsourcing of shipping to countries that have fewer regulations, taxes and oversight, and the consolidation of shipping to a few large and powerful companies have lowered the cost to transport goods. Maritime vessels currently make up 40% of US international trade and 18% of GDP. And as we have increased the volume and velocity of trade, the risk of disruption to this system has grown even greater.

On March 23, 2021, we witnessed the ship that launched a thousand memes, as MV Ever Given, one of the largest container ships afloat, rammed into Asia and effectively blocked 12% of the world’s trade for six days. Many people around the world were impacted by the fragility of the global maritime supply chain as one ship, experiencing high winds and some poor decision making by the pilots and master, effectively sealed one of the planet’s major maritime chokepoints, the Suez Canal. Fortunately, the ship was removed within a week. But it became clear that the black swans had descended on shipping.

In January 2022, as the world was reeling from the impact of Covid-19, on the high seas, coastal waters and inland rivers, merchant mariners continued to deliver the goods that kept the world economy operating. Off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, 109 ships anchored or drifted off waiting to offload. This led to congestion in the global supply chain and a spike in shipping rates, which was deeply felt by consumers.

On November 19, 2023, a new, but familiar threat emerged to shipping, when Houthi rebels from Yemen descended on board MV Galaxy Leader in the Red Sea and hijacked — some might say pirated — the car carrier and sailed her to Yemen. This marked the start of a campaign by the Houthis, in support of Hamas in their attack on Israel, against global shipping transiting the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden. Over a hundred ships were attacked — one was sunk and three people were killed on board another.

In February, at least five were killed in China when a bridge snapped in half. Just a month prior, a cargo ship crossing the Prana River in Argentina hit the Zárate–Brazo Largo Bridge, according to the government-run news agency Télam, which has since shuttered.

The collision of MV Dali into the Key Bridge takes place just two years after another container ship, MV Ever Forward, sped out of the channel leaving from Baltimore, heading toward the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and ran aground, nearly closing the port. It took a month and large-scale dredging and salvage effort to free the stuck vessel. Now, two years later, Baltimore is closed with remains of the Key Bridge athwart the main shipping channel.

So, why have there been so many incidents?

The world has seen an increase in not just the volume of trade, but in the velocity of its delivery. The concept of the sea being a free and open common for commerce has been a fact since the 1600s. And, since the end of World War II, ships have plied the oceans unfettered. Nonetheless, the reality is that ocean-shipping has become safer over time. Thirty years ago, the world was losing over 200 ships a year. Only 38 succumbed in 2022. How then do we explain events like Ever Given, Ever Forward and now Dali?

While Baltimore has invested in deepening their channel and harbor and new ship-to-shore cranes to offload ships, some aspects of the maritime infrastructure remained frozen in time, such as the Key Bridge, which was designed over 50 years ago.

We need to fortify critical infrastructure like the bridges over our waterways. According to the Federal Highway Administration, out of the 615,000 bridges in the US, more than 17,000 are “fracture critical.” “What that means is if a member (referring to a portion of the structure) fails, that would likely cause a portion of, or the entire bridge, to collapse, there’s no redundancy. The preferred method for building bridges today is that there is redundancy built in, whether that’s transmitting loads to another member or some sort of structural redundancy,” said National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy.

When the Key Bridge was built in 1977, just across the way at Sparrows Point shipyard on the Chesapeake Bay side, a harbinger of what was to come in shipping was taking shape, as Bethlehem Steel built a series of tankers 1,100 feet long and 145,000 gross tons. MV Dali, at 984 feet and about 95,000 gross tons, a containership vice tanker of similar size, is considered medium size for shipping today.

The failure to adequately cope with such challenges has occurred because of the divided nature of shipping in the United States. While the Department of Transportation has the Maritime Administration, which should be the one stop shop for all things shipping, as Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg noted in the first press conference following the accident, “there is no central authority that directs maritime traffic.”

The Dali falls under the jurisdiction of US Coast Guard as it sails in American waters. The channel into and out of Baltimore is maintained and regulated by the Army Corps of Engineers. The bridge falls under the Maryland Department of Transportation and the port is the city of Baltimore. No one agency has oversight of or coordinates global shipping or ports in the US. This will again complicate matters during the salvage operation with competing agencies and interests at work.

There is also no overall maritime strategy for the nation, although the US Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration has been tasked to develop one. Similarly, there is no national port strategy for the US. The Federal Maritime Commission — which regulates US international ocean transportation — undertook a study in 2015 that identified many of the shortfalls experienced during the supply chain crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, but lacked the ability to implement many of the recommendations. The Maritime Administration has not even published an annual report since 2013.

The negative impact of the black swan events follow a pattern in the history of the shipping industry. Many times, it takes economic hardship and the loss of life to affect change.

And, to be sure, some of that change has been initiated. In 2022, two congressmen from across the aisle, Democratic Rep. John Garamendi of California and Republican Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota offered and passed the first piece of maritime reform legislation in over two decades — the Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 2022. It aimed to give more rights to American importers and exporters and hold the large shipping firms accountable.

But more needs to be done. We must educate government officials at the national, state and local levels, along with the public, on the role of shipping, so that when accidents happen, there can be transparency and accountability. The US should also make a decision to have greater involvement in the international regulation of shipping.

Black swan events, and the chaos and tragedies they can lead to, cannot be eliminated completely, but they should be rare events. We must take steps to address issues with our infrastructure and awaken to the reality that the maritime sector is vital to the nation’s economy as much as air, rail and aviation.

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