US west coast seaports remain operational albeit at lower demand levels

RUMOURS have been swirling that the US biggest ports were closing after business was dented by the US-China trade war and now rattled by the global coronavirus pandemic

27 March 2020 - 05:48

RUMOURS have been swirling that the US biggest ports were closing after business was dented by the US-China trade war and now rattled by the global coronavirus pandemic.

'We're moving forward, we're moving cargo,' said Port of Los Angeles media relations director Philip Sanfield. 'A priority now is helping medical supply companies get their stuff.'

Many of the raw materials as well as manufactured goods used or sold in the US come from Asia, which puts west coast ports on the front line. 'All of our terminals are open,' he said, reported the Washington Times.

'Ships are arriving, longshore is at work, the truck community, railroad folks - everybody's at work. We are committed to keeping the supply chain running through this crisis.'

While many regions throughout the country are seeing shortages of household items that were hoarded or bought in bulk, such as toilet paper, economists say internal supply chains should be fine.

The LA port is operating at 80-85 per cent of capacity, Mr Sanfield said. It is the only one in the US to move five million TEU in 2018. That put it narrowly ahead of the adjoining port of Long Beach, which took in 4.3 million containers that year.

'Someone is circulating a rumour about ports closing, but nothing could be further from the truth,' said Port of Long Beach spokesman Lee Peterson. 'Even with the state's new stay-at-home order, we are a designated essential function, just as is the rest of the supply chain, so we'll remain open.

'We are actually fairly busy today with 12 containerships in the port and being worked. Not to mention two dry bulk vessels and four liquid bulk tankers.'

The west coast had seen fewer goods come through its ports because of the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration as part of its trade battle with China. In January, for example, the Northwest Seaport Alliance reported a decline of more than 19 per cent from January 2019, a difference it attributed to a shipping surge in 2019 that occurred before the tariffs kicked in.

Traffic picked up at the ports after China and the US signed an initial trade deal, but the coronavirus, which started in Wuhan in December, severely limited manufacturing there for weeks. Half of the goods that land at the west coast ports usually originate in China and Hong Kong.

During a conference call organised by the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce in Washington state, officials said Port of Tacoma executive director Eric Johnson urged businesses to 'dispel rumours going around the port is closed'.

The Northwest Seaport Alliance saw traffic drop 3.1 per cent in February from the previous year, with 260,932 TEU. In Los Angeles, the port saw US$276 billion in international trade in 2019, half of which moved between China/Hong Kong, Mr Sanfield said.

''Returning to normal,' is how we would phrase it,' Mr Sanfield said of LA's port traffic. 'They aren't back to 100 per cent to our knowledge, but they seem to have flattened the curve.'

Long Beach saw 19 cancelled sailings compared to 14 in the first quarter of 2019, Mr Peterson said. China is its single biggest trading partner, accounting for 59 per cent of the port's imports and 21 per cent of its exports last year.

'We expect our first-quarter container units to be down by five per cent from the first quarter of 2019 due to coronavirus,' he said. 'In February, compared to the same month last year, we were down by 10 per cent TEU.'

Other major ports - New York/Newark; Savannah, Georgia; Houston; Charleston, South Carolina; and New Orleans - are all also wide open. Although the administrative staff and buildings have largely shifted to work-at-home, the docks have not.

New Orleans sees 100 containerships from China per year, accounting for ten per cent of its annual imports, but it has seen two arrivals cancelled since the outbreak began, said Port of New Orleans spokeswoman Jessica Ragusa.

'The omissions were due to weak exports from China as a result of the coronavirus' impact on manufacturing,' Ms Ragusa said.

'Industry analysts have indicated manufacturing has picked up in China, so we expect to see a surge in the near future.'

While precise figures were unavailable, the Georgia Ports Authority predicted in February its ports could see a decline of up to 30 or 40 per cent because of the coronavirus, which would hurt traffic and volume at the port of Savannah.

'The question is how long is that going to last?' Savannah Economic Development Authority CEO Hugh Tollison told local press. 'I think we've got about five to six weeks where we're going to see some significant declines, but I think after that it will start building back up.'


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