Port congestion on both coasts is likely to cap second-half US import capacity

It’s still the early days of peak shipping season but the record for container ships anchored off California is already on the verge of being broken.

Port congestion is simultaneously building along the East Coast, with anchorage numbers off Georgia well into the double digits and, for the first time this year, a growing queue offshore of the Port of New York and New Jersey reports www.freightwaves.com

California congestion previously peaked in the first quarter. On Feb. 1, the Marine Exchange of Southern California reported an all-time-high 40 container ships at anchor in San Pedro Bay, awaiting berths in Los Angeles or Long Beach. The highest number of container ships in the entire port complex, including those at anchor and at berth — 67 — was set on Jan. 28.

On Friday, there were 125 ships of all types (including tankers and cruise ships) either at berth or anchor in Los Angeles/Long Beach. That’s a new record. The Q1 high was 113.

On Saturday, there were 68 ships of all types at anchor, yet another record. There were 66 container ships either at berth or waiting offshore, just one short of the all-time high. And there were 37 container ships waiting offshore, three short of the February peak.

All regular and emergency anchorages were full, forcing the overflow to drift in designated areas. As of Sunday, five container ships were drifting off Santa Catalina Island.

In addition to new liner services, shipping consultant Jon Monroe noted that “extra loaders” (ships sailing one-off voyages not in a regular service) and charter vessels “may make matters worse.” Monroe warned: “Be prepared. Picking up containers in Southern California will hit a new level of difficulty.”

A key variable for the weeks ahead involves the COVID-induced terminal closure in Ningbo, China. As of Monday, the affected terminal had been closed for six days. When COVID curtailed throughput in Yantian, China, in June, it gave Los Angeles/Long Beach a brief reprieve from inbound volume, reducing congestion temporarily, then subsequently increasing congestion as delayed Yantian cargo belatedly arrived.

Ship positioning data from MarineTraffic showed nearly 40 container ships at anchor off Ningbo on Monday. According to S&P Global Platts, “Port issues in China threaten to limit carrying capacity in peak season.”

Container ships at anchor Monday with a stated destination of Ningbo (Map: MarineTraffic)
Anchorages also filling off East Coast
On the East Coast, congestion has largely centered on the port of Savannah, Georgia, this year, driven at various times by high volume, weather closures of the Savannah River, and dredging.

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