Port of Charleston
© John Wollwerth

US importers must be feeling like they’re stuck in a game of ‘whack-a-mole’.

In response to congestion and concerns over likely further disruption at west coast gateways, many shifted some imports from Asia to the east coast – only to find congestion there getting worse than on the Pacific coast.

Last Wednesday, maritime analytics firm MarineTraffic counted 18 containerships waiting for berth space at the port of Charleston, and another 12 lining up at Norfolk.

There were more ships idling at Charleston than in San Pedro Bay, where 16 were waiting for a berth at Los Angeles and Long Beach. According to MarineTraffic, a total of 186,000 teu was in limbo off the gateway complex, compared with 273,000 teu on the east coast.

So, importers on the east coast are now waiting longer to get their cargo, reports MarineTraffic, citing median wait times of less than four days at Los Angeles and under two days at Long Beach, but nine-10 days at Charleston and three-four days at Norfolk.

The pile-up in the east had been coming: through the second half of last year the eastern gateways saw a marked increase in mega-ships at their docks, as congestion on the west coast prompted shifts of imports. In February, Maersk warned clients dwell times had gone up at several east coast ports, including Newark, Virginia and Charleston.

Bob Imbriani, VP international services at Team Worldwide, said: “It has slowly been getting worse and has been sporadic, but is starting to become a major concern. We have seen the delays expanding by several days.”

And some expect the situation to deteriorate further. Rate benchmarking platform Xenata recently warned that the east coast was “the next hot spot for terribly high congestion”.

The migration of imports from Asia to the east coast gained impetus in recent months from fears of disruption in the west from contract negotiations between longshoremen and terminal operators, due to start next month. Previous rounds resulted in stand-offs that stifled cargo flows.

However, the likelihood of a strike or shut-out in California is relatively low, given the potential financial fall-out for carriers and the pressure on the union from the administration to avoid disruption, reckons Craig Grossgart, SVP global ocean at Seko Logistics.

Seko itself had not made wholesale changes to its discharge ports, but customers have pushed for shifts to the east, he said.

The ports on the eastern seaboard do not have labour contract negotiations looming, but otherwise the issues are the same as on the west coast – notably lack of space and labour shortages, and they are not showing signs of abating. Over the past seven months, South Carolina Port Authority has several times adjusted predictions on when the congestion on its docks would be cleared, and this month it announced it would stop making predictions.

MSC informed customers this month it would temporarily stop calling at the port of Charleston on its route to South Asia because of extended wait times.

And a growing number of importers and forwarders have swivelled from the east coast to the Gulf of Mexico. This has brought a rising tide of container imports to the port of Houston, which saw its teu tally in January up 27%, year on year.

“We actually switched to several Gulf ports some time ago, based on availability of drayage services and have expanded their use,” Mr Imbriani reported.

Houston’s Asian container volumes are bound to climb further. In late March, Maersk launched a transpacific service from Vietnam and China to Houston and Norfolk via the Panama Canal.

However, stablished players in Texas are getting nervous about rising box traffic.

“Houston city docks are getting swamped with containers,” one project forwarder said.

Comment on this article

You must be logged in to post a comment.