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Officials say the ports logjam is easing, but numbers don't tell the whole story

Sam Dean, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

San Pedro Bay is looking less crowded these days. The fleet of massive container ships loitering just offshore from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles has thinned to 46 boats from its peak of more than 80 in late October.

Is that a good sign for Southern California's congested supply chain, and the breathability of its air? That depends on who you ask.

At a news conference Tuesday to mark Labor Secretary Marty Walsh's first visit to the port complex, Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka pointed to the drop in ships at anchor as a sign of progress. "Since we instituted a penalty for long-aging containers, the number of ships at anchor has decreased by more than 40% over a four-week period," Seroka said.

The implication had some supply chain watchers blowing their stacks. The dwindling number of ships directly offshore can't be disputed — but the total number of vessels waiting hasn't gone down because the ports have suddenly sped up operations.

"It's an apples-to-oranges comparison," said Sal Mercogliano, professor of maritime history at North Carolina's Campbell University and a former merchant mariner who criticized the comment on social media.

The dramatic decline in the number of ships at anchor stems from a new policy set by shipping trade groups that encouraged incoming ships to wait out in the open ocean rather than close to shore. Starting Nov. 16, boats crossing the Pacific have been asked to sit 150 miles offshore as they wait for a slot to unload their cargo, and boats traveling north or south along the coast were asked to sit 50 miles out. Although only 46 ships were waiting in San Pedro Bay as of Wednesday, an estimated 50 additional container ships that embarked after the change are now loitering over the horizon, which would raise the total backlog to a record high.

 

Seroka "is an expert in the field, and what L.A. and Long Beach have been able to do is amazing in terms of cargo," Mercogliano said. But he saw conflating the number of boats nearby with the total backlog as "a little disingenuous."

In an interview, Seroka defended his statement with some clarification. Four weeks ago, 84 boats were waiting at anchor to be unloaded. More than 40% of those 84 boats have been unloaded since, Seroka said, which he cites as evidence that the ports are working at an impressive pace, even if the backlog continues to grow at sea.

The ports have handled record-setting cargo volumes over the last year, though they've hit a plateau. "Before the pandemic and before the surge in the American consumer buying patterns," Seroka said, "during the peak season we would have one or two months where we move 900,000" twenty-foot equivalent units — or TEUs, the standard volume metric in ocean shipping — all told, including loaded imports and exports and empty containers.

"We've been averaging 900,000 containers a month for 17 months now," Seroka said. "This is really peak performance."

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