cargo ships waiting

California Ports Bottleneck: Why Container Ships Can’t Sail Around It

There are about 70 ships waiting off the coast of California to unload cargo, which has become record-breaking visual proof of the delays and disruptions occurring across entire global supply chains. Large vessels continue to arrive. But why is that? Why do these ships, which know of the traffic, simply just sail to a non-California port?

There are few options and decades of development has made the San Pedro Bay are critical to the import of goods into the United States from Asia. Yes, a handful of ships have been able to sail to alternative West Coast ports outside of California. The small number of mainly smaller ships that have been able to divert to other ports is miniscule compared to the thousands of containers off the Southern California coast.

The reason for the sudden congestion where only one ship may have been awaiting a berth at any given time? It’s a result of the pandemic. A surge of imports has been triggered by increased demand by consumers in the U.S. This has resulted in retailers rushing to restock depleted inventories.

Last year the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles handled about 8.3 million import containers. The nation’s next busiest port is New York and New Jersey, which only handled 3.9 million containers. There’s a simple explanation for this; and its’ because California is ideal for receiving shipments from China. Chinese factories are sending over electronics, apparel, and a variety of other consumer goods. For major importers, the ports offer easy access to the largest population centers of the U.S via road and rail.

Oakland or Seattle are the closest alternatives, but they lack the ability to move and store the same numbers that Los Angeles and Long Beach do per week. And these ports, as well as others, are being used. However, they would be easily overwhelmed by just a sliver of the traffic that enters Los Angeles and Long Beach.

What about the U.S. East Coast ports?

Some shippers have shifted freight to Gulf of Mexico and East Coast ports. There’s a cost though, and that is not only a more expensive route, but also adds weeks to transit times. These East Coast ports are seeing effects from the congestion at California. The Port of Savannah has had more than 20 ships awaiting a berth. When ships anchored idle isn’t the issue, it’s a lack of equipment. Shippers and importers at other ports, whether it be Houston or Miami, for some it’s a struggle to source containers because they’re waiting to unload in California.

How long will this last?

This is a cycle that industry experts expect to continue for some time until the situation stabilizes. Yet as for now, they expect the bottleneck to remain for at least a few more weeks as California ports attempt to push their way through the backlog.

If you have shipments to the U.S.A., contact the BGL team. We’ll be able arrange the most efficient transit available for your cargo.

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