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SoCal container ship queue evaporates amid Lunar New Year slowdown

Highlights

Ships waiting to berth at Los Angeles-Long Beach drops below 80 for the first time since November

Asian exports lull allow ports to catch up, but inland supply chain gridlock remains an obstacle

  • Author
  • Greg Holt
  • Editor
  • Valarie Jackson
  • Commodity
  • Shipping
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  • United States

The queue of container ships waiting to berth at the dual Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on the US West Coast dropped to the lowest level in months amid a slowdown in export cargoes during Lunar New Year celebrations in Asia.

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There were 78 ships in the queue Feb. 9, down from a record high 109 Jan. 9, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California. It was the first time there were fewer than 80 ships in the queue since November when the Safety and Air Quality Area was created to keep the growing number of loitering ships at least 150 miles away from the California coastline.

"Seventeen container ships are scheduled to arrive over the next three days, which is also exactly the 'normal' level ... based on 2018-19 pre-[pandemic] levels," the Marine Exchange said in a report Feb. 8. "The fact that 15 of the 17 container ships arriving in the next three days are going directly to berths without anchoring off LA/LB is another good sign that the new queuing system for labor is working."

There were just three ships at anchor outside the ports, while the other 75 in the queue were slow steaming or drifting outside of the SAQA. If the number of ships unloaded in port further exceeds the number of new arrivals, the count of ships at anchor off the coast could be reduced to zero for the first time since June 2020, when international trade was sharply curtailed near the start of the coronavirus pandemic before consumer demand fueled an unprecedented reversal.

"Seventeen container ships are scheduled to arrive over the next three days, which is also exactly the 'normal' level ... based on 2018-19 pre-[pandemic] levels," the Marine Exchange said in a report Feb. 8. "The fact that 15 of the 17 container ships arriving in the next three days are going directly to berths without anchoring off LA/LB is another good sign that the new queuing system for labor is working."

The slowdown is expected to be temporary as it coincides with the Lunar New Year festival, which began Feb. 1 and curbed export operations from China, Vietnam, Singapore, and South Korea, among other East Asian countries.

Importers are hoping that US port congestion is past its peak and the workforce is recovering from the worst effects of the omicron variant. But import throughput at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex was already trending lower toward the end of 2021 as terminal congestion prevented port workers from unloading ships at their normal pace.

The adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach handled a combined import volume of 746,210 TEUs in December 2021, the lowest monthly level since June 2020. Second-half 2021 imports at the San Pedro Bay complex were 5.5% lower than July-December 2020, while the average number of ships in queue ballooned to 56.8 vessels in the second half of 2020 from 1.25 ships for the same period in 2020.

"[COVID-19] hit the logistics labor market pretty hard, especially among terminal, drayage providers and warehouse workers," shipping consultant Jon Monroe said. "As long as the above stakeholders work independently, each going their own direction, there is little chance that we can rid ourselves of the port congestion anytime soon."