But the ports say they are working with terminal operators and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) to address the congestion that is limiting their ability to move Asian imports to the eastern half of the US.
Carriers this year have launched four new trans-Pacific services to the Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA) and two to Oakland as they attempt to relieve some of the pressure on the congested ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Oakland's imports from Asia were up almost 32 per cent in the first four months of the year from the same period in 2020, and almost 26 per cent higher than the same period in pre-pandemic 2019, according to PIERS. The NWSA of Seattle and Tacoma saw volumes from Asia jump 40.3 per cent in January through April from a year ago, and 10.4 per cent from the same period in 2019.
'We're taking some of the edge off of the challenging situation in LA-Long Beach, but discretionary cargo is finding its way up the coast,' said John Wolfe, executive director of the NWSA.
Oakland is dealing with vessel bunching that now rivals the backlogs Los Angeles-Long Beach has dealt with since December. The number of vessels forced to wait at anchor for berthing space to open in Oakland is consistently above 20, and was at 25 on Thursday, according to the port.
Officials with the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents terminal operators, attribute the congestion primarily to a shortage of longshore labour.
PMA President Jim McKenna said employers and the union in Oakland in recent weeks have hired 950 part-time workers, known as casuals, and have elevated 300 existing casuals to registered status, which allows them to be trained to handle the machines that lift and move containers within the terminal yards. The training process takes 30 to 60 days, Mr McKenna said.
Oakland got a boost in capacity recently after being granted certification to begin operating three new super post-Panamax cranes that arrived at Oakland International Container Terminal (OICT) in January. For the past four months, the berth and section of the facility where the cranes were being installed and tested had been idled.
'Only four of the five berths at OICT had been working. As of [Thursday night] all berths will be. This is adding 20 per cent of berth space at OICT,' Bryan Brandes, the Port of Oakland's maritime director said.
In the Pacific Northwest, Terminal 18 (T-18), the NWSA's largest container terminal, has been operating at full capacity, and inbound containers cannot be vacated quickly enough for the terminal to discharge more containers from the vessels, Mr Wolfe said.
'When you reach that point, you have to first remove containers from the terminal to add more containers,' he said.
SSA Marine operates T-18, as well as Terminal 5 (T-5), which is under renovation and has unused yard space that will not be back in service until the terminal is opened in January. To relieve some of the pressure, SSA is draying inbound containers from T-18 and storing them at T-5, Mr Wolfe said. Terminal 46 in Seattle also has some unused acreage that is being prepared for container storage, he said.
In addition, port staff are encouraging terminal operators in Seattle and Tacoma to extend their gate hours for trucks by starting earlier, working later, and running Saturday gates as needed.
The NWSA is also working with the railroads to look at establishing rail hubs in eastern Washington to handle agricultural exports. They are studying the feasibility of having short-line rail carriers shuttle the export loads to the port, thereby relieving some of the pressure on the Union Pacific and BNSF railroads, he said.