International trade activity booming through U.S. Southern California ports
The twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in Southern California’s San Pedro Bay are experiencing a massive spike in import-export activity, sourced primarily from Asia including China, which is taxing their usually efficient systems to their limit and slowing shipping traffic to a crawl.
“We are seeing record-breaking container traffic through the Port of Long Beach,” Port of Long Beach (POLB) Executive Director Mario Cordero told Xinhua on Tuesday, confirming 21.9 percent growth in January 2021 over the year before, and a record fourth quarter 2020 that was 23 percent year over year above the same period of 2019, almost 2.5 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU).
The Port of Los Angeles (POLA) reported similar gains. According to the port’s data, January imports were 518,000 TEUs, equivalent to 60 percent of the port’s entire import container throughput in the first quarter of last year.
Moreover, POLA’s forecast for the remaining week of February indicated the port would handle more than 500,000 TEUs of imports for the month, with manifest details for import containers arriving on ships in the first week of March 217 percent up over the same week of 2020.
On Sunday, in Seal Beach, a coast city neighboring Long Beach, there were at least 36 ships at anchor in the San Pedro Bay area awaiting an available berth at the two ports.
The fourth quarter 2020 and first quarter 2021 surge in shipping volume was credited to a number of factors: the warming of relations between the United States and China; U.S. vendors stocking up for Christmas, New Year, and Easter holiday shopping seasons; and house-bound COVID-era U.S. consumers taking to e-commerce with a vengeance.
Cordero described the top products driving import increases from Asia, which make up 70 percent of POLB throughput, such as COVID-19 personal protective equipment, medical equipment, home office furnishings, exercise equipment, construction materials, and a range of home improvement products for the tens of millions of work-from-home workers during lockdowns.
“China will always remain an important trading partner to the U.S.,” Cordero told Xinhua. “International trade is vital to both countries. The last administration was a disappointment, because history tells us that tariffs never work, and they didn’t work this time either. (Joe) Biden’s taking a more pragmatic approach.”
“The spike in imports is unprecedented in scale, breaking new records on a monthly basis,” Executive Director of POLA Gene Seroka reported to the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners.
But the downside of such an unprecedented surge through Southern California ports has been massive congestion in the gateway, which has left dozens of container ships idling in San Pedro Bay for 7 to 10 days waiting for a berth to offload their cargo, versus 3 to 5 days previously.
Even when the cargos are unloaded from inbound vessels onto land, the cascade effect brings other thorny issues into play. Terminals and their storage facilities fill up rapidly, trucking and railway loading back up, and understaffed workers can’t move containers on to their next stop quickly.
About 80 percent of container storage capacity at POLB and POLA was considered full, but the current surge has their container storage topping out at whopping 95 percent of capacity.
Labor shortages due to COVID-19 put 800 dockworkers on COVID-related sick leave, unable to report for duty, leading to up to 4 times longer cargo turnover, according to the Harbor Trucking Association.
Speaking of POLB, Cordero told Xinhua, “We hope to see a significant decrease in dockworkers catching COVID, now that the governor’s office and the Long Beach mayor have earmarked a number of vaccines for essential dockworkers that will keep the ports running as smoothly as possible. It’s a good start.”
Labor shortage is also hammering warehouses, said vice president of transportation at Weber Logistics, Jerry Critchfield, in an online post, as they struggled to keep trained workers on during the pandemic.
POLA’s latest reports predict that the influx of containers will continue into March, while the National Retail Federation forecasts the surge may last into June.
To help speed through the backlog, POLB is relying on their enhanced software logistics program and appointment system to help streamline operations.
They are also encouraging supply chain participants to share more private information that many companies keep siloed, which could expedite the system and they are prioritizing dual transactions at the ports.
“The cost across the supply chain is very heavy, millions of dollars per vessel per day, when they sit not doing their business,” Seroka told reporters.
Waiting extra days to offload is indeed expensive and has prompted a push by some carriers to change the order of their ports of call or divert some of their vessels to alternate west coast ports with shorter waiting time.
The Port of Oakland, adjacent to San Francisco, and the Port of Seattle, in Washington State on the U.S. northwestern coast, are enjoying increased business from overseas shipping as a result, particularly from China, including CMA CGM’s new weekly Golden Gate Bridge transpacific service to Oakland and Seattle from Chinese ports, and Wan Hai’s new service from Chinese ports to Seattle and Oakland as well.
Cordero is confident that these alternate ports would prove to be short-term solution only.
“Shippers have choices, so short term, some cargo may be diverted, but we are confident that they will cycle back as we continue to live up to our international standard as the port of choice and the largest port complex in the nation,” he told Xinhua.
“In 2020, we moved in excels of 17 million containers, no port complex in America moves even half of that,” he added. “With our individualized services, our capital improvements, digital enhancements, and green technology, we will always continue to be competitive.”