Container imports to the major California cargo ports dropped sharply in February as factory production in China remained stuck in low gear in the wake of the Lunar New Year shutdowns and widespread coronavirus quarantines, according to statistics released today.
At the same time, exports fared slightly better over the same period, contributing to a growing shortage of empty shipping containers on American and European shores. Containership lines operating transpacific routes have canceled many departures from China in recent weeks, citing reduced demand for ship space because of China’s manufacturing slump.
Shipping lines have already cancelled 20 voyages to the Port of Oakland alone between February and April, and are scuttling dozens more sailings to ports worldwide through spring, Port of Oakland leaders said. As a result, the port is forecasting a decline in March import volume as well.
The trend has also made an impact on the dockworkers and longshoremen who handle those containers, according to a joint statement from The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA).
“West Coast ports are the leading gateway for the movement of cargo from Asia to the United States. Over the past six weeks, operations at the ports have been increasingly impacted by the reduction of cargo flow from Asia as a result of the coronavirus outbreak,” the ILWU and PMA groups said. “As has been widely reported, cargo imports from Asia have fallen significantly over the past month, with work for ILWU members being reduced up and down the coast. According to the most recent figures released by PMA, year-to-date work shifts at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach – the nation’s largest port complex – have declined.”
In search of a solution, maritime giant MSC is now dispatching its ships to fetch empty containers from China and reinvigorate the flow of trade, according to published reports.
In the meantime, the trend will continue to hit U.S. import statistics. Imports to The Port of Oakland dropped 9.2% in February compared to the same month last year, while containerized export volume increased 15.4% over February 2019, marking its fifth consecutive month of year-over-year increases.
That discrepancy has created a container flow including 51% exports and 49% imports by volume thus far in 2020, the port said. Those exports are led by agricultural products such as refrigerated perishables, primarily including shipments of chilled and frozen meat products to Asian markets.
Conditions were slightly worse at the Port of Los Angeles, which recorded a 22.5% drop in February imports and a 5.7% drop in February exports, as measured in twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). The container shortage was highlighted by a 35% plunge in total volume of empty containers, the port said Monday.
“While cargo volumes are important, the coronavirus is first and foremost a public health crisis that needs to be brought under control with the collaboration of governments and medical experts from around the world,” Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka said in a release. “We are more interconnected than ever with our global partners so it’s no surprise that Trans-Pacific maritime trade has been significantly impacted.”
“As factory production in China remains at low levels, we expect soft volumes in March. Looking ahead to anticipated manufacturing improvements, we will need to return empty containers to Asia and push lingering U.S. export boxes out swiftly,” Seroka said. “We’re actively working with our supply chain partners to be prepared for a cargo surge once production levels ramp up.”
Cargo update (March 13, 2020): All Port of Los Angeles terminals are open and operating. Cargo volumes are at 85% of normal traffic; 10 cargo vessels being worked by labor crews. No cases of COVID-19 reported. pic.twitter.com/raeWKVwVcY— Port of Los Angeles (@PortofLA) March 13, 2020