Where Ships Go to Die: Business Boom Amid Recession

The freighter graveyards of South Asia are busier than ever.

ByABC News
May 11, 2009, 6:39 AM

May 11, 2009 — -- When times were good, shipping companies ordered huge numbers of new steel behemoths to ply the oceans. Now though, many of those same container lines are eager to get rid of their ships. The scrapping business in South Asia is booming.

The sandy beaches north of Chittagong in Bangladesh look like giant steel graveyards. Ships line the banks ready for dismantling. Others are so far disassembled that their hulls are all that is left protuding morosely from the water, according to shipping industry journal Lloyd's List. All kinds of vessels get broken down here: bulk carriers, container ships, vehicle transporters and oil tankers.

The wrecks are remnants of a disappearing world. Once they sailed the oceans as flagships of globalization. Now they're symbols of an order that threatens to sink with them.

The global economic and trade crisis is so severe that a growing number of ships, some larger than the Titanic, are being pulled from their routes and sent to scrap yards to be sold for parts. Freight and charter rates have fallen and regularly scheduled passenger lines are being cancelled. Those container ships that are still sailing can barely cover their costs. Over-capacity created in recent boom times has accelerated the trend toward scrapping ships.

Yet one boom replaces another. With shipping down, shipbreaking is the business of the hour. The shift began late last year and initially targeted ships with a combined load-carrying capacity of 10 million tons. Now the heavy rigs are being lined up too as they sit idly anchored in harbors around the world. Much of the scrapping happens in South Asia and with little regulation in place.