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Despite the impact of aggressive ocean carriers eating into their business, there is still a thriving market for specialist reefer operators; but they “need to diversify to protect themselves”, according to the annual Reefer Shipping Market Annual Review and Forecast from Drewry Maritime Research.

Drewry says container lines have been attracted to the reefer sector by the seduction of higher rates and strong cargo growth, its latest analysis predicts a 17% expansion of the total seaborne perishable reefer trade in the five-year period between 2013 and 2018, equating to an additional 16.5m tonnes of cargo.

Further, general rate increases (GRIs) announced by carriers for reefer cargo have a much better success record than those for standard dry boxes which are often eroded within weeks.

And to mitigate the high investment requirement for buying new reefer containers, many container lines have switched to leasing 40ft high-cube refrigerated units, evidenced by a reported 70% of new equipment orders now being for reefer boxes.

Reacting to this encroachment into a hitherto niche business, which has seen a considerable fall in demand for the ageing fleet of conventional reefer ships over the past few years, resulting in newbuild orders almost drying up completely, Drewry says the specialist reefer operators have “started taking on the container lines at their own game”.

The initiative, says the analyst, has been led by the world’s largest specialised reefer operator, Seatrade, lengthening its ships to incorporate a fully cellular hold, and its recent orders for new reefer containerships.

In July, the Antwerp-headquartered company announced it had ordered two high-reefer-capacity, eco-designed, 2,200teu ships from a Chinese yard for delivery in January 2016, and said the order represented the first in its commitment to further develop services, which it dubbed “Fast, Direct & Dedicated”.

Thus, with an emphasis on speed, Seatrade is giving notice that it will fight the mega-carriers for reefer market share on transit times – the Achilles heel of the commoditised low unit cost container lines.

With the advent of slow- and super-slow-steaming strategies, transit times are substantially longer than 10 years ago, and when increased transhipment and port congestion are factored in there are serious implications for time-sensitive perishable cargoes.

Longer transits – and a virtual disregard for schedule integrity by carriers in their one-tracked quest to keep fuel spend to a minimum – continues to be the biggest complaint from shippers, and those with reefer cargoes are shouting the loudest.

It follows that in their need to adapt to today’s increasingly containerised market for reefer cargoes, Seatrade and its peers could find themselves in demand to carry high-value general cargo containers that the ocean carriers’ one-shoe-fits-all policy of commoditised cargo does not satisfy.

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