Container ships wait off the coast of the congested Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in Long Beach, California

Container ships wait off the coast of the congested Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in Long Beach, California, U.S., October 1, 2021. REUTERS/ Alan Devall

Checking In On Southern California’s Containership Backup

Mike Schuler
Total Views: 21267
June 27, 2022

With a busy summer expected at the San Pedro Bay ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, vessel traffic officials are reporting a new record low number of containerships waiting for a berth.

The Marine Exchange of Southern California on Friday reported just 16 containerships in the backup, setting a new record low for 2022.

For comparison, this is down from an all-time record high of 109 containerships in the backup in early January of this year. Compared to 2021, the backup hit a low of 9 ships in June 2021, decreasing from a February peak of 40. However, the backup increased steadily from the June low through the end of the year—leading to January’s record. To put it another way, year-over-year the backup is up 77%, but down over 85% compared to the peak.

Pre-covid, the number of containerships backed up was 0-1 at any given time.

Chart showing the containership backup. Courtesy Marine Exchange of Southern California

The 16 containerships in the backup as of Friday included 1 ship at anchor and 15 outside the Safety and Air Quality Area (SAQA), which was introduced in November 2021 as part of a new queuing process developed by the Pacific Maritime Association, Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, and Marine Exchange to improve safety and air quality off of Southern California amid historic congestion and the unprecedented backup of ships waiting at San Pedro Bay anchorages.

“The fact that 17 of the 18 container ships arriving in the next 3 days are going directly to a berth without anchoring is great evidence that the new queuing system for labor is working, in that most ships are planning their arrivals to not need need to anchor, which is a return to “normal” pre COVID in 2018-2019,” wrote Captain Louttit of the Marine Exchange in his latest update. “This is great evidence that the new queuing system for labor is accomplishing its twin goals increasing safety and air quality continue to be met.”

The updated system essentially establishes a “Safety and Air Quality Area” that extends 150 miles from the coast that inbound trans-pacific containerships are requested to avoid while awaiting a berth at the ports. It also changes how ships have historically entered the berthing queue.

The Marine Exchange of Southern California is a non-profit that jointly manages Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) with the U.S. Coast Guard for the San Pedro Bay Ports Complex, which includes the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

With both ports calling for a busy summer shipping season ahead, along with increasing congestion in marine terminals and on-going labor negotiations, what happens with the backup going forward is really anyone’s guess.

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