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Dozens cargo ships float off coast of Los Angeles amid supply chain crisis

Christian Fernsby |
With about two dozen cargo ships sitting anchored off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in Southern California's San Pedro Bay this week, local media said it showed the United States was facing a supply chain crisis.

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In Seal Beach, a coastal city neighboring Long Beach, Xinhua found on Sunday morning there were at least 20 ships at anchor in the bay area awaiting available berths at the Port of Los Angeles (POLA) and Port of Long Beach (POLB), which form the largest container port complex in the country.

According to the data released by the Marine Exchange of Southern California, a service that monitors port traffic and operations, another six ships were scheduled to arrive this weekend and join the other 20 ships which had been waiting outside the ports for a week.

The two ports, which handle about one-third of U.S. imports, operated as a primary source of imports from China and have been experiencing a "historic cargo surge" and heavy congestions for months. In February, the Coast Guard had videotapes showing over 60 ships at anchor at one time in the San Pedro Bay.

POLA, the busiest U.S. port by container volume, said last Wednesday said it had the strongest March in its 114-year history, noting "as more Americans get vaccinated, businesses reopen and the economy strengthens, consumers continue to purchase goods at a dizzying pace."

The port's Executive Director Gene Seroka disclosed at an online briefing conference that the port processed 957,599 Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) in March, a 113 percent leap compared to March 2020 when global trade slowed to a crawl after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The loaded imports volume reached 490,115 TEUs last month, an increase of 123 percent compared to the same month of the previous year, while loaded exports edged up 1.5 percent to 122,899 TEUs. Empty containers, heavily in demand in Asia, surged 219 percent compared to March 2020, reaching 344,585 TEUs.

The cargo surge in March marked the largest monthly year-over-year increase in POLA's history and its busiest first quarter.

Earlier this month, POLB also announced that it achieved its busiest month and its second-best quarter on record "as consumers continued to practice physical distancing guidelines in March and turned their computers into virtual shopping malls."

"#POLB had its busiest month ever in March. Dockworkers & terminal operators moved 840,387 TEUs last month, a 62.3% jump from March 2020. These numbers mark the 9th consecutive month that POLB has broken cargo movement records for a particular month," it tweeted on April 15.

Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, was quoted by the Business Insider website as saying that the two ports were facing more congestion than ever.

The normal number of container ships at anchor is between zero and one, Louttit said, adding that some of the container ships had been waiting off the shore for weeks and one of the vessels had been at berth since April 3.

Of the ships waiting to dock, half of them are what Marine Exchange calls "mega-container ships" or ships with the carrying capacity of 10,000 TEUs. Louttit explained that these huge ships take longer to unload.

"You need more trucks, more trains, more warehouses to put the cargo," he said, otherwise millions of dollars worth of popular imports, including furniture, auto parts, clothes, electronics, and plastics, carried by a cargo ship could only float in the Pacific.

Asked how long he thought the surge might last, POLB's Executive Director Mario Cordero told Xinhua last month, "Our best guess for the duration is early summer." Some experts estimated the surge could run through the summer.

Longer dwell times in harbor, tighter space in warehouses and distribution centers, overflowing container yards, and COVID-19-related dockworker absence contributed to the supply chain bottleneck.

It takes 8,000 trucks to haul cargo away from a ship, Louttit told local KTLA news channel last Thursday, adding that when those trucks hit the road, there aren't enough available dockworkers to unload the next ship in port.

Lately, it takes five to seven days to unload a ship instead of two to three days, said Shruti Gupta, an industrial analyst with consulting firm RSM.

The backlogs got worse after a strike by the teamsters union against one of the trucking companies spread to supporting actions by the longshoremen last week in POLA.

A port spokesperson told NBC News in Los Angeles that there had been some traffic disruptions at one of the port's seven terminals but that the impact against overall port operations and the movement of cargo was minor.

"Any disruptions to the port's operations could come as a significant setback as the Port of Los Angeles continues to make progress in reducing the backlog that peaked in late January and early February," said The Maritime Executive.

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