port of los angeles

New York last month regained its status as the top container port in the US for import volume, while the non-appearance so far of a peak season brought another double-digit decline in throughput at the top ten gateways.

According to the McCown Report, total containerised imports at the busiest ports last month fell 12.5% year on year, to 1,828,320 teu – the 10th consecutive month where the decrease has been above 10%.

And coastal shift continued at pace during July, with US east and Gulf coast ports handling 1,022,445 teu in import boxes, a 4.4% decline on July 22. This compares with a huge 21% YoY slump on the west coast, to 805,875 teu.

The San Pedro Bay port complex of Los Angeles and Long Beach suffered the biggest decline with import throughput down, respectively, by 24.2% and 27.9%, at 367,983 teu and 271,086 teu.

West coast dockworkers are voting this week on a labour agreement reached in June between their employers and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which could be the impetus for a rebound in volumes to the Pacific coast.

Indeed, Long Beach harbour commission president Bobby Olvera was optimistic that signing a new labour contract would lead to a recovery. He said: “We are ready for a rebound in cargo volume based on our ability to move cargo reliably, quickly and sustainably.”

However, the report’s author, consultant John McCown, believes it could take a while for the coastal shift from west to east coast ports to slow and/or bounce back.

“The full impact of that [labour agreement], and what rebound may be seen in terms of coastal mix, will take another couple of months to fully play out,” he said.

Meanwhile, he suggested, the low water levels in the Panama Canal, restricting transits and load factors on vessels using the waterway on transpacific Asia to US east coast services, could benefit the west coast ports.

“This may augment any swing back to more west coast discharge over the near term,” said Mr McCown.

Notwithstanding the coastal shift debate, the main unanswered question from container ports, ocean carriers and all the players in the supply chain is: will there be a peak season this year?

During recent carrier second-quarter earnings calls, there has been some optimism that, at least on the transpacific, there could be a later-than-usual “subdued” peak season.

Carriers are encouraged by vessel utilisation levels of recent sailings from China, with some lines reporting they have been “close to rolling cargo”. And this has underpinned carrier rate increases with, for example, Xeneta’s XSI Asia to US west coast spot rate component spiking by 60% since the end of June, to $2,030 per 40ft.

In fact, Port of Long Beach CEO Mario Cordero anticipates a “modest peak season for shipping, as consumers spend a little less this year on back-to-school supplies and gifts through the holiday season”, he said.