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Congestion at US West Coast ports eases despite continued import surge

Pressure on US West Coast eases despite surge in traffic
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Imports through US ports are set to continue at current unprecedented levels throughout the summer of 2021 as retailers work to meet increasing consumer demand, even as the West Coast congestion slows down.

The latest Global Port Tracker report, compiled by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates, suggests that while the supply chain remains stretched, the country’s major gateways aren’t faced with the same pressure they were earlier in 2021.

Only 17 vessels were waiting at anchor off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, compared to 30 a month ago.

“Congestion at U.S. ports is abating as container carriers and terminals adjust to the new normal,” Hackett said.

“We saw the busiest February on record as the ports worked to clear the backlog, and the number of ships at anchor in San Pedro Bay waiting to dock at Los Angeles and Long Beach is dropping.”

US ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.87 million TEU in February, the latest month for which final numbers are available.

That was down 9.1% from January but up 23.7% year-on-year (YoY) and the busiest February since NRF began tracking imports in 2002.

March was projected at 2.07 million TEU, up 50.7% YoY, but Hackett cautioned that last year’s swings caused by the pandemic have “played havoc” with percentage comparisons.

During March 2020, many Asian factories that should have reopened after February’s Lunar New Year holiday were still closed, and US businesses were starting to close to avoid spreading the virus.

Imports in April are forecast at 1.99 million TEU, up 23.4% YoY, May at 2 million TEU, up 30.6%, June at 2.01 million TEU, up 24.9%, July at 2.04 million TEU, up 6.5%, and August at 2.08 million TEU, down 1.2%. The August number would be the first YoY decline since last July if accurate.

The first half of 2021 is forecast at 11.99 million TEU, up 26.9% from the same period in 2020, which experienced a major decline in imports due to COVID-19.

Imports saw a total of 22 million TEU in 2020, up 1.9% from 2019’s 21.6 million TEU and beating the previous record of 21.8 million TEU recorded in 2018.

Under the current forecast, volume is expected to remain at or above the 2 million TEU mark for 11 out of 13 months by this August. Before 2020, monthly imports had reached 2 million TEU only once, in October 2018.

NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said, “We’ve never seen imports at this high a level for such an extended period of time.

“Records have been broken multiple times and near-record numbers are happening almost every month.

“Between federal stimulus checks and money saved by staying at home for the better part of a year, consumers have money in their pockets and they’re spending it with retailers as fast as retailers can stock their shelves.”

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