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MSC omits container service to Seattle as North America port congestion intensifies

Highlights

MSC to skip port calls on Seattle

Los Angeles-Long Beach to charge fees for dwelling cargoes

Geneva-based shipping firm MSC will temporarily omit a port call on Seattle with its Eagle services from Oct. 27 until further notice due to mounting congestion at Seattle and other West Coast ports.

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MSC said increased waiting time for vessel berthing at Seattle was impacting schedule reliability and causing delays to shipments.

MSC's 2M vessel sharing alliance partner, Copenhagen-based A.P. Moller-Maersk, said in a customer advisory last week that the waiting time for vessels to berth at Seattle had grown to 28 days, exceeding waiting times at any other port in North America.

"The 28-day waiting time on a berth window is being created by extreme yard congestion at 120%," Maersk said. Yard congestion at other Pacific Northwest ports, where shipping lines are trying to export empty containers as fast as possible to avoid shortages in Asia, were up to 100% at Vancouver and 106% at Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

"The entire city is clogged with empty containers with nowhere to go," a Vancouver-based freight forwarder said. "Terminals didn't take in any loads and only shipped empties. That impacted lots of freight that has been booked and had to be bumped."

There were 17 ships at anchor or coming and going in the straits around Seattle-Tacoma and Vancouver on Oct. 27, with 11 container ships moored at the various terminals, according to Platts cFlow trade-flow analytics software.

These volumes are greatly exceeding capacity, leading to the pile-up of empty containers at the terminals. The Port of Vancouver and the Seattle-Tacoma Northwest Seaport Association handled a combined 6.1 million twenty-foot equivalent units in 2020, compared to 17.3 million TEUs for the combined Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex last year.

There were 75 ships at anchor of the coast of Los Angeles-Long Beach or drifting in nearby waters from Santa Barbara to San Diego, according to Platts cFlow. Yard congestion at the dual ports was 78-82% last week, according to Maersk.

In order to reduce the lengthening queue, the Biden administration has instructed the ports to impose an "emergency fee" surcharge on shipping lines for cargoes exceeding dwelling limits at Los Angeles-Long Beach terminals. Those limits were set at three days for rail containers and nine days for containers moving by truck, thereafter incurring a $100 surcharge per day per container.

"We must expedite the movement of cargo through the ports to work down the number of ships at anchor," Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka said. "Approximately 40% of the containers on our terminals today fall into the two categories. If we can clear this idling cargo, we'll have much more space on our terminals to accept empties, handle exports, and improve fluidity for the wide range of cargo owners who utilize our ports."

The short notice of the new emergency fees has shipping lines scrambling to find a solution by next week despite severe shortages of trucks, chassis and warehouse capacity needed to remove the containers from port terminals, market sources said.