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

Marine Exchange: New Ship Queueing Process at Los Angeles and Long Beach is Working

Mike Schuler
Total Views: 3199
November 30, 2021

New ship queuing process off Southern California ports may not be perfect, but for now it’s working, according to one of the entities responsible for designing the process. Meanwhile, a new methodology for counting ships in the queue is also in the works.

The Marine Exchange of Southern California says the new queuing process for ships at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is working to accomplish its goals of improving safety and air quality off the Southern California coast.

The new system was developed jointly by the Pacific Maritime Association, Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, and Marine Exchange of Southern California, and introduced earlier this month in response to historic congestion and an unprecedented backlog of ships anchored or loitering close to shore in Southern California waters. 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.

According to the Marine Exchange, the benefits of the new process are two-fold. First, it increases safety by spacing ships out further out at sea as opposed to designated anchorages or tighter loitering areas within 40 miles from the ports. Second, the new system improves air quality in Southern California by drastically reducing the number of vessels idling near major metropolitan areas.

Critically, the new process also changes how ships enter the queue. Under the old system, ships essentially got in line when they arrived within 20 nautical miles from the San Pedro Bay Port Complex. But the new system calls for each vessel to be assigned a place in the arrival queue based on their departure time from their last port of call. This allows vessels to “slow steam” across the Pacific, a strategy that the shipping industry has often embraced as a means of reducing fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

The Marine Exchange of Southern California, a non-profit, 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, and assists in the safe navigation of vessels approaching the ports in an area extending 25 miles out to sea from Point Fermin. The Marine Exchange is unique among the nation’s VTS areas in that it is managed through a public/private partnership. It is led by Captain James “Kip” Louttit, its Executive Director, who holds Masters degrees from MIT and Golden Gate University and is a retired Coast Guard captain.

Admittedly, the new queuing process does not improve congestion at terminals, nor does it do anything to speed up the movement of goods ashore. “We regret that is beyond our ability to influence, but industry took it upon itself to do what could do within the scope of its ability and authority to increase safety and air quality in Southern California, it’s working thus far, and we’re honored to be part of it,” Captain Louttit wrote in a post on the Marine Exchange’s facebook page last week, on the eve of Thanksgiving.

Along with daily updates posted to Twitter, Captain Louttit and his civilian team at the Marine Exchange have also been posting semi-regular updates, about twice-weekly, on its Facebook page.

“My VTS watch is breathing a sigh of relief tonight as were are 22 fewer vessels loitering in our waters tonight than last week, reducing risk of an incident as await the strong Santa Ana wind event during the next 48 hours,” Captain Louttit said in his post last week.

As a reminder, the introduction of the new queuing process came at a time when a record number of ships were either physically anchored or loitering near shore – to be exact, there were 86 containerships anchored or loitering as of Nov. 16th, the day the new process was implemented.

Captain Louttit provided his latest update on Monday:

“The backup continues but vessels loitering in SoCal Waters are happily decreasing per the new container vessel queuing system that is spreading the ships out through the Pacific and enabling slow-speed-steaming, increasing safety and air quality. The system truely worked during the storm last Wednesday night with 50 knot winds,” Captain Louttit wrote.

To the frustration of some journalists tracking the vessel queue off of Southern California, the new process does skew some of the numbers that the Marine Exchange has been sharing throughout the pandemic as the backlog of ships steadily increased from “normal” levels. “We should have a methodology to count these ships within a week and we appreciate your patience,” Captain Louttit wrote in his update on Monday.

A screenshot shared by the Marine Exchange of Southern California shows vessels waiting outside the new Safety and Air Quality Area.

Although it may seem like the increasing backlog of ships at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is a new phenomenon, it actually dates back Summer 2020 as imports, driven by increased consumer spending, rapidly picked up steam after crashing in the early days of COVID-19. Before then, ships hadn’t had to loiter since 2004 and, even then, it was only about a half a dozen ships, according to an earlier update from Captain Louttit.

I think it’s important to note the safety ramifications of having dozens of big ships in close proximately and near shore off of Southern California. We’ve already seen one Major Marine Casualty as a result; the Southern California oil spill. Although we didn’t learn about the incident until the pipeline burst for whatever reason in early October, investigators believe the incident actually dates back to a heavy weather event on January 25, 2021, when strong winds caused a ship (possibly the MSC Danit) to drag anchor over the pipeline. During that storm, among the 52 total ships at anchor (a record, at the time), 24 went to sea for storm avoidance.

While everyone may not agree with the new queuing process, I don’t think anyone is willing to risk another major marine accident at a port complex that handles 40 percent of the nation’s containerized imports.

“A safe, secure, efficient, reliable and environmentally sound marine transportation system is essential to our economy, which is why this new system is so vital,” said Captain Louttit in introducing the new queuing process. “Our organization is thrilled to have helped develop a process that relies on comprehensive, real-time data to support the health of our ports.”

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