For years, the Port of Hueneme has quietly handled fresh produce and automobiles in the shadow of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the largest U.S. gateway for containerized freight and consumer goods, 60 miles to the south.
That anonymity disappeared this year as cargo owners, desperate to avoid having shipments trapped in the San Pedro Bay supply chain quagmire, rerouted shipments to the 120-acre facility in Oxnard, California. Now port officials are trying to attract charter vessels after the naval base that shares the port opened its dock to commercial traffic to alleviate port congestion in Southern California.
“We’re seeing apparel, furniture and electronics — all kinds of things that have not been the types of commodities that would come through Hueneme because they’re trying to avoid the supply chain chaos in some of the larger port complexes,” CEO Kristin Decas told FreightWaves.
Record import levels have swamped terminal, truck and rail capacity at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, with matters made worse by COVID-related work slowdowns and stuffed warehouses. Vessels are off cycle and not taking out enough empty containers. The more cargo piles up, the longer it takes to sort through for discharge and the harder it is for trucks to get loads. As TV images routinely demonstrate, nearly 90 container ships at various times this fall have been stuck at anchor or farther out to sea waiting for a berth.
Still, the Port of Hueneme can only make a minor dent in the LA/Long Beach backlog because it is too small to handle the massive container vessels that disgorge thousands of containers there. With a harbor 40 feet deep, a limited turning basin and short wharves, it can only accept vessels able to carry 2,500 to 3,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, or about 1,250 to 1,500 full-size containers. Last year, the port handled about 107,000 standard shipping units compared to 17.3 million at the port complex to its south.
A decade ago, Hueneme transitioned from servicing breakbulk to container vessels, with a core business in refrigerated imports. Produce distributors Chiquita Brands and Del Monte operate their own dedicated fleets of container vessels, bringing bananas, melons and other produce from Latin America to certain West Coast ports, including Hueneme.
Cargo is now getting to Port Hueneme in new, and different, ways. Container volumes are at an all-time high, with imports more than double and exports up 135% for the first three quarters of the year versus 2020. In the past 12 months, exports are up 88% to $988 million and imports grew 25% to $8 billion, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Scheduled carriers such as Chiquita, Del Monte and regional container line Sealand are opting to offload all their commodities in Hueneme to avoid making calls at other congested ports. Instead of rotating through several ports, Hueneme is their one-stop shop for the U.S. And vessels that previously arrived partially full are fuller now with new shippers that used to utilize other carriers going to other ports.
Chiquita and Del Monte, for example, are also renting space on their small vessels to outside customers. Vessels that might carry 400 to 500 containers on a typical weekly voyage are booked with an extra 100 or more containers filled with dry cargo, such as toys, that rides next to mangoes.
Some of the new cargo is transshipment volume transferred from a transoceanic mother ship at hubs in Panama or Mexico to smaller vessels that deliver to the destination port, Decas said.
Last month, Hueneme accepted the first direct charter vessel from Asia at Navy Base Ventura County, where stevedore Ports America offloaded 500 containers. The use of a military asset to help with the port congestion is another innovative way the shipping community is adapting to unclog ports and inland distribution systems. The Georgia Ports Authority is using a small general aviation airport as overflow storage for containers, and several major retailers have also recently opened pop-up yards to store containers away from crowded marine terminals.
Access to Navy Base Ventura is possible because of a joint-use agreement dating back to 2004. Hueneme has traditionally used this auxiliary infrastructure to support automotive cargo, but officials have activated it now to handle time-sensitive holiday merchandise.
Hueneme doesn’t pay the Navy rent to use its facility, including back lands. Instead, it puts money in a restricted account that is used to invest in infrastructure for the local installation.
The port authority is working with the Navy on a case-by-case basis to determine whether more ships can be received in January without impacting any military cargo or repairs, Decas said. Officials have also been approached by some chartered vessels languishing for weeks at anchor outside San Pedro Bay, but none have diverted to Hueneme so far.
The port director added that Hueneme is trying to coordinate six-to-eight-month contracts with big brand retailers that control some charter vessels and want more regular, scheduled access to the seaport.
Careful planning is required to make sure shippers have the necessary supporting infrastructure, such as chassis to carry containers and truckers, in place before accepting more container business so that existing operations aren’t impeded by gridlock.
Unlike landlord ports, Hueneme manages terminal operations and has direct contracts with ocean carriers and certain shippers, which gives it more control over cargo flow.
Some cargo owners may have equipment in other locations that isn’t being utilized because of congestion and could potentially relocate it to handle the influx in Hueneme. Del Monte is bringing chassis up from Texas and Central America, according to the National Public Radio program “Planet Money.”
“We don’t want to become part of the problem,” Decas said. “We don’t want to have backlogs here because we’re taking containers and then you’re not getting bananas to the supermarkets. It’s really incumbent on the ocean carrier to find equipment, bring it here and just provide us with the comfort level that it’s all in place.”
The Southern California cargo backlogs have even forced officials to discuss options such as short-sea shipping — putting containers on barges at big ports and shuttling them to smaller ports, or shifting empty containers to Hueneme by rail and shipping them back to Asia on smaller vessels. Those possibilities previously were considered impractical.
“We’re throwing a lot of spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks,” Decas said.
Many agricultural exporters, left behind by ocean vessels racing back to Asia to load more lucrative import cargo rather than letting empties circulate inland, are also bringing pears, apples, french fries and other products that normally leave through Seattle or Oakland, California, to the Port of Hueneme. From there they catch rides to Central and South America, where some shipments presumably are transshipped to customers in Asia, Decas said.
The Port of Hueneme has poured about $20 million from federal and other sources into infrastructure modernization during the past six years. In June, it celebrated the completion of its deepening project, which has been in the works for almost two decades. The dredging of an additional 5 feet enables vessels to carry heavier loads. The port has also improved pavement and upgraded other facilities, while private stevedoring companies have added electric plugs for refrigerated containers.
Port of San Diego
The Port of San Diego, about a 90-minute drive south of Los Angeles-Long Beach, has also been accepting additional vessels since March. It specializes in refrigerated cargo like fruit from Dole, which brings in 3 billion bananas a year, as well as roll-on/roll-off and project cargo like steel.
Based on its size, capacity and available labor, it can take about two to four cargo vessels a month with various commodity types. Officials are working to make sure any spot container cargo doesn’t interfere with or slow down operations for existing customers, spokeswoman Marguerite Elicone said in an email.
Recent shipments include lithium batteries for solar and wind farms that came in 40-foot containers and juice concentrate in drums delivered by a refrigerated breakbulk ship. The concentrate for kids’ juice packs normally comes inside refrigerated container units.