SoCal Port Congestion Falls to Lowest Levels in Six Months

containership congestion declines off Southern California
After months fof backlog, the San Pedro Bay area has reduced the number of containerships waiting for berths (MXSOCAL)

Published Mar 15, 2022 1:47 PM by The Maritime Executive

The backlog of containerships lining up to enter the twin ports in Southern California has been on a steady decline. Yesterday, the backlog reached what the Marine Exchange of Southern California is calling a “new record low,” half the levels seen just four months ago. The ports are continuing to handle record volumes, which is also contributing to the decline, while there remains uncertainty over future disruptions to the supply chain.

In November 2021, the level of congestion at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach reached record levels. Four months ago, there were a total of 116 containerships either in port or anchor. That included a record 86 vessels waiting for berths contributing to the decision by the groups that oversee marine traffic in the region to institute a new system asking containerships to instead slow steam toward the ports and wait further out to sea away from a new zone at least 50 miles from the coast of Central and Northern California and Mexico, and 150 miles from the coast of Southern California. That led to reports saying the problem was only being shifted over the horizon and indeed the backup of vessels waiting for space at the Southern California ports reached an all-time high of 109 containerships on January 9, 2022.

Currently, there are a total of 43 containerships waiting for berth space or heading toward the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. This includes only three ships in the anchorage while 40 are registered and steaming toward the ports. The 40 was down by seven containerships in the past day. Looking forward over the next three days, the Marine Exchange is reporting that 16 containerships are scheduled to arrive, which is one fewer than the "normal" level of 17, based on 2018/19 pre-COVID levels.

“The backup is well under half the record,” highlights Captain Kip Louttit, Executive Director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California. “For comparison, the backup was last in the 40s in late August and early September 2021.”

The Port of Los Angeles in its updates is highlighting similar progress. The Daily Signal shows that the average time awaiting berth is now at 2.9 days based on a 30-day rolling average versus seven to eight days early in 2022. The number of vessels on berth however remains consistent with more than 20 vessels each at the ports of Los Angles and Long Beach. Both ports expect an increase in the coming week, possibly reflecting the growth in volumes after the Lunar New Year Holiday celebrations in Asia, with volumes projected to remain high but at consistent levels.

The Port of Long Beach reported its volumes for February were the busiest on record for the month with a more than three percent increase in TEUs to 796,560 overall and a better than four percent increase in import volumes. Los Angeles is due to release its monthly volume figures tomorrow but during the month both ports used the time to clear backlogs and reduce the number of vessels waiting for berths.

“We are moving record amounts of cargo and catching up with the ongoing surge of imports,” said Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero. “Meanwhile, we are proceeding with measures we will need in the long term, such as development of our Supply Chain Information Highway data solution, which provides greater cargo visibility, connectivity, and predictability.”

As another sign of progress, the combined Southern California port complex reports a nearly two-thirds decline (64 percent) in aging cargo on the docks since late October when they announced plans for increased fees for containers with long dwell times. Long Beach and Los Angeles note that they never began charging the fees, but working with the carriers, shippers, and terminals was able to reduce the backlog of containers.

The uncertainty now is the impact of the current COVID restrictions in China which is the origin for much of the imports into Southern California. While the Chinese ports are so far functioning, warehouses and manufacturing facilities have been closed. The Southern California ports had been expecting a steady stream of containers that could now be disrupted and then see a surge after the latest lockdowns. In addition, it was anticipated that retailers would again be advancing their orders for fall and holiday season merchandise to avoid the delays they saw in 2021 leading to a likely increase in volumes into the ports starting by late spring or the summer.