By Robert Tuttle (Bloomberg) —
Storm season is coming to the shores of Southern California, and that could make global supply-chain bottlenecks even worse.
Close to 160 vessels are waiting to enter the Long Beach and Los Angeles port complex — some mega-sized container ships carrying as much as half a million tons of everything from consumer goods to factory inputs. The build-up of cargo outside the main U.S. gateway for Chinese exports is contributing to goods shortages and prices hikes ahead of the Christmas shopping season.
But a new worry is bubbling up from the port gridlock: The area’s storm season that’s already underway will bring high winds and choppy seas, potentially leading to accidents among ships jostling for space.
Ships waiting to use the Port of Los Angeles hit 14 days at anchorage this week, about the same amount of time it takes to cross the Pacific, according to port data. Before the pandemic, it was rare for a ship to be at anchor at all, Phillip Sanfield, port spokesman, said by email. The combination of stormy weather and congested waterways has become so critical that the U.S. Coast Guard issued a winter weather advisory on Thursday, requesting, among other things, that large ships remain three nautical miles apart from each other, be prepared to deploy a second anchor when winds are strong and keep their engines on standby.
The danger of ship accidents isn’t just theoretical. The U.S. Coast Guard last month said an oil spill off the coast of southern California — near the ports where ships were dwelling in record numbers — happened after a ship’s anchor struck an undersea pipeline operated by Amplify Energy Corp. as long as a year ago, weakening the line. The Coast Guard has also been investigating an incident involving the MSC Danit cargo ship, which dragged its anchor during a winter storm last January in close proximity to an undersea oil pipeline.
Large ships such as the massive container vessels parked off the southern California coastline can be blown around, Paul Blomerus, executive director of Vancouver-based Clear Seas Center for Responsible Marine Shipping, said by phone. Where there is congestion at a port, there’s an increased risks for some accidents, including collisions. In March 2020, the bulk carrier Golden Cecilie collided with the bulk carrier Green K-Max 1 off British Columbia amid gusting winds, entangling both vessels’ anchor chains.
In a recent high-profile example, strong winds blew the heavily-laden cargo ship Ever Given aground while transiting the Suez Canal in March, blocking traffic on the world’s most important waterway for almost a week.
Gridlock in California’s San Pedro Bay complex is happening at a time when Covid-19 has extended the length of time seafarers are serving on ships, leaving them tired, stressed and potentially more prone to making mistakes, according Mikis Tsimplis, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong law school and a specialist in maritime law. Ship congestion can increase the possibility for mishaps even during regular winter storms, he said.
Stormy seas played a role in the loss of 3,000 shipping containers last year, more than double normal losses, and close to 1,000 during the first few months of 2021, according to the Alliance Safety and Shipping Review for 2021.
The California storms have already begun.
On Oct. 22, ahead of a massive rain storm that pummeled the state, the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which organizes traffic, requested that vessels voluntarily go out to sea ahead of the windy weather, promising that vessels wouldn’t lose their spot in line if they did so. The major rain and windstorm caused flooding in much of the state and downed power lines but didn’t result in major incidents at sea involving large commercial vessels, Amy Stork, a spokesperson for the Coast Guard, said by phone.
While traffic volumes have increased, Coast Guard operations haven’t changed very much, except that patrols of ships at anchor are being carried out more frequently, she said.
But in the end, mitigation measures can only go so far, City University of Hong Kong’s Tsimplis said.
“The availability of good weather warning systems is a given nowadays, but the exact way a weather system will impact a specific location and combine with the local currents is not easy to predict,” he said.
© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.
Sign up for our newsletter