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Photo courtesy Port Houston

Panama Canal Restrictions Hit US East and Gulf Coast Port Volumes

Mike Schuler
Total Views: 5151
December 7, 2023

U.S. container imports experienced a 9% decrease in November 2023 compared to October 2023, according to the latest U.S. imports report from Descartes Systems Group.

This decline was most pronounced in East and Gulf Coast ports, which are starting to feel the impact of drought-driven Panama Canal restrictions. While this monthly decrease is significant, it is in line with the monthly reductions typically observed at the end of previous years, Descartes noted.

In November 2023, U.S. container import volumes reached 2,099,408 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). Compared to November 2022, TEU volume showed a 7.4% increase, and it was up by 10.4% compared to November 2019, before the pandemic. Import volume growth over the first eleven months of 2023 is within 4.0% of the same period in 2019.

Imports from China also continued to decline, although at a slightly faster pace than the overall numbers. Imports from China declined by 11.7% in November 2023 compared to October 2023, and were down 21.9% from the August 2022 high. China represented 37.3% of total U.S. container imports in October, a decrease of 1.1% from October and down 4.2% from the high in February 2022.

The impact of the Panama Canal drought started to impact U.S. container import volume at East and Gulf Coast ports for the first time in November. According to Descartes’ report, the port of Houston experienced a significant decline of 26.7% in November. Similarly, top East Coast ports also saw greater decreases in volume compared to the overall national trend.

These decreases helped top West Coast ports gain market share over top East and Gulf Coast ports. The top five West Coast ports increased their import container volume share to 43.1%, while the top five East and Gulf Coast ports decreased to 42.0%. The report notes that the situation could worsen as the Panama Canal Authority plans to further reduce the number of daily transit slots in the upcoming months due to severe drought exacerbated by this year’s strong El Niño.

The December update of logistics metrics being tracked by Descartes shows a decline that is consistent with seasonal import patterns, but also indicates that recent improvements in global supply chain performance have stalled.

“November has traditionally been a weaker month than October, and while the decline is steep, it is consistent with previous performance,” said Chris Jones, EVP Industry at Descartes, commented on the situation. “The impact of the drought in Panama is finally being felt, with volumes at Gulf Coast ports, particularly the port of Houston (-26.7%), being significantly lower than the overall decline. East Coast ports also experienced a significant decrease.”

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