A Shipping Catch-22: Los Angeles, Long Beach See Drop In Import Volume, But Cargo Backlog Keeps Growing
Congestion at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach continues, this time with a strange dichotomy of issues. The number of container imports has dropped significantly, down 9.6% from a year ago, with the port handling the lightest traffic since June 2020.
On paper, that sounds like things might finally be easing up for the ports, which have faced a steady backlog of ships, labor shortages and congestion that has slowed down supply chains in the U.S.
The problem is that a good chunk of the ships now arriving at the port are smaller ships. Many manufacturers and ocean freight companies have turned to these smaller vessels as a way to avoid wait times for container space on larger ships.
That might speed up transit, but smaller ships are less efficient for ports to unload and handle, so what was designed as a solution hasn't had the intended effect.
The backlog of container ships off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach isn’t getting smaller—it just looks that way https://t.co/o9Nfn2x3FO
— The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) December 11, 2021
According to the Wall Street Journal, those smaller ships make up about half of the ships that arrived at the Port of Los Angeles last month. In October, it was closer to a third.
And despite the decrease in containers in Los Angeles, neighboring ports expect to see record import volumes for the year, totaling more than 10 million boxes in 20 ft. equivalent units.
What's possibly the most eyebrow-raising detail about the whole situation is that a record 101 container ships were currently waiting to enter the ports this week. The ships are spread out at sea, due to new queuing systems implemented last month to mitigate risk of collisions in winter waters. According to Splash 247, the ships are spread out along 1,000 miles of shoreline from California into Mexico.
I’ve got a turkey breast and legs, but the wings and giblets are stuck off the Port of Los Angeles.
— Conan O'Brien (@ConanOBrien) November 24, 2021
To illustrate the backup, Splash 247 noted that the Maersk Esmereldas left port in Xiamen on Dec. 12, and is expected to arrive at the Port of Los Angeles on Jan. 11, a transit time of one month. That's roughly twice the normal time it takes a container ship from China to reach the U.S.
In October, the Biden Administration OK'd the Port of Los Angeles joining its Long Beach counterpart in implementing a 24-hour work schedule to try ease the supply chain strain. But, as Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles told the Wall Street Journal, trying to fix shipping issues right now is "almost like a game of whack-a-mole."
"We try to get after one issue, and then two or three more pop up," Seroka said.
ABC News noted that the round-the-clock labor has resulted in problems of its own, such as coordinating warehouse space and truck transportation during the overnight hours.
Despite all this, and the small dip in container volume in November, the Port of Los Angeles is still on track to handle a record 5.5 million container units imports this year—is a 13% increase over the previous record set in 2018.