Police have warned people to stay away from a beach in Devon where a shipping container with a cargo of several million cigarettes has washed ashore, insisting: “It is not a free-for-all.”
Beach patrols were set up after the 40-foot-long box was spotted bobbing to shore at Axmouth, on the Lyme Bay Coast near Seaton, early this morning. More than 14 tonnes of cigarettes were thought to be inside and unopened boxes of Lark cigarettes could be seen among the beach pebbles.
Police and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) later issued a warning to treasure hunters heading to the beach in the hope of picking up the cigarettes.
A spokesman for Devon and Cornwall Police said: "We have officers there because it has been seized under section 273 of the Merchant Shipping Act. It is not a free-for-all for the public. There are dangers associated with containers and products which have washed ashore. The message is, police are seizing them and would ask the public to steer clear."
The MCA was informed that containers were lost from a Maersk cargo ship on Valentine’s Day as it crossed the northern stretch of the Bay of Biscay in stormy conditions.
More than 500 boxes fell into the water – most of them were empty and are thought to have sunk - as high winds hit the ship during an attempted passage from Rotterdam to Sri Lanka. Crew were not hurt but the loss of the containers is thought to have been one of the biggest ever losses suffered by Maersk.
The MCA's aerial surveillance aircraft has been searching UK water, and ships passing through the English Channel have been warned and asked to report any sightings.
Simon Porter, MCA counter-pollution and salvage officer, said: "We have been carrying out extensive searches over the last four days and spotted three containers, one of which has since come ashore and the other two are mid-Channel. We are now working closely with Maersk to ensure they recover their containers, which are their property. The Beer Coastguard Rescue Team, police and council officials are currently on scene at Axmouth beach and the container has been cordoned off.
He added: "The public is reminded that all wreck material found in the UK has to be reported to the MCA's Receiver of Wreck. Those who don't declare items are breaking the law and could find themselves facing hefty fines and paying the owner twice the value of the item recovered."