America’s imports are stuck on ships floating just off Los Angeles
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The giant container ship that blocked the Suez Canal for six days was freed Monday, but another bottleneck in the supply chain remains, this one in Southern California.
On Monday morning, 24 container ships—with a combined maximum carrying capacity nearly 10 times that of the newly freed ship—were anchored off the coast waiting for space at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which keeps tabs on vessels and directs ship traffic.
The ships are carrying tens of thousands of boxes holding millions of dollars’ worth of washing machines, medical equipment, consumer electronics and other of the goods that make up global ocean trade, all of it idling in the waters in sight of docks that are jammed with still more containers.
One was on its 12th day of waiting in the seemingly unending queue. And the vessels keep coming.
Backups started building late last year as retailers and manufacturers tried to rebuild inventories that were depleted in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.
WITH SHIP NOW FREED, A PROBE INTO SUEZ CANAL BLOCKAGE BEGINS
A stark difference can be seen comparing the movements of container ships around the ports in February of 2020 with February 2021, according to location data from shipping tracker Marine Traffic.
In February 2020 there is steady access to the docks with ships rarely anchoring offshore:
And in February 2021, many ships anchor offshore as they wait in a queue for dock space:
The two ports together handle more than a third of U.S. container imports, and delays there are part of a global supply-chain mess that continues even after the ships are unloaded. In January, more than a quarter of imported containers at those gateways had to wait more than five days for handling once they reached the dock, according to the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. In June 2020, before the logjam, about 2% had to wait that long.
U.S. imports from international trading partners picked up as coronavirus restrictions eased and demand rebounded in the summer of 2020. The U.S. imported a record $219.86 billion in goods in January of this year on a seasonally adjusted basis, about 9% higher than a year earlier.
“Under normal conditions, container ships rarely anchor,” said Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California. On Feb. 1 at noon, 40 were anchored offshore. The number has dipped since.