US ports have been struggling to cope with demand for some time now, with congestion along the Californian coast proving to be a particular sticking point.
As stated in our previous advisory on US Congestion, the Southern California region has seen record numbers of ships at berth or anchor. Since then, the situation has intensified with new record numbers being recorded in w/c 20th September seeing 70 container ships with almost 500,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) at anchor awaiting berth, a higher amount of containers than the Port of Long Beach handled through all of August.
Beyond the number of vessels waiting to berth causing concern, the trend of decreasing cargo capacity in ships is also a growing issue. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are seeing new services added, increasing the number of smaller cargo ships able to carry a lower load of containers. More ships are therefore queuing in the region causing further delays and disruption. Delays are due to the inefficient volume that each ship can carry, as more ships are seen coming through the ports but at no added level of output.
To put into context, only 24% of the overall ship count in the queue on Monday 20th September were larger than 10,000 TEUs, almost 30% below the average size from February this year. The root of the issue seems to be the lack of larger vessels available to the market, leading to operators scrambling to put more smaller vessels on the shipping routes to cover capacity, with some even leasing or chartering the smaller ships at very high rates.
(Port of Los Angeles, 23rd Sept 2021, Source: Port of Los Angeles, California Live Ship / Marine Traffic)
The backlog of ships is clearly visible on the image above, showing just how serious the number of vessels drifting and anchoring has become. In its current state, it would take 2 weeks for the ships awaiting berth to be cleared, provided no more entered the queue. However, the flow of ships en-route to the California ports shows no signs of slowing, only exacerbating the current pressures.
Once queued, the vessels are seeing record high wait times with an average of nine days and in some cases almost one month.
Although there has been a 75% increase in vessels awaiting berth off of the SoCal coast, the capacity awaiting berth has only risen 34%, putting the circumstances and vessel size into perspective.
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