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American ShipperContainerMaritimeMost PopularNewsShippingTrending

New video shows massive scope of California box-ship traffic jam

Pileup of container ships anchored off California remains as painful as ever

(UPDATE: Latest on California container-ship traffic jam: see link here)

Newly released U.S. Coast Guard video offers visceral proof of just how extreme the congestion has become at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The new view from above reveals a vast armada of container ships scattered at anchor across California’s San Pedro Bay.

As the Coast Guard footage paints the picture, the latest data from the Port of Los Angeles and from the Marine Exchange of Southern California tells the story behind those images.

(Video: U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class Richard Brahm)

The data confirms that there has been no real let-up in the historic container-ship traffic jam off California’s coast. 

As of Thursday, there were 25 container ships at berth in Los Angeles and Long Beach. Thirty-two container ships were at anchorage. That’s roughly the same level that has been at anchor since the beginning of this year. (The record of 40 container ships at anchor was hit on Feb. 1).

The Port of Los Angeles, via its platform, The Signal, recently began disclosing the number of days at anchor for specific container ships. The numbers confirm that some vessels are spending almost as much time at anchor as it takes to traverse the Pacific Ocean.

As of Thursday, the Ever Envoy, with a capacity of 6,332 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), had been at anchor for 11 days. Other ships that had just gone to berth had been waiting just as long: As of Tuesday , the 9,400-TEU MSC Romane had been at anchor for 12 days. The 11,356-TEU CMA CGM Andromeda, 8,452-TEU Ever Liven and 4,888-TEU NYK Nebula for 11 days.

The Signal indicated that the average time at anchor for ships calling in Los Angeles was 8 days as of Thursday, up from 6.9 days on Tuesday. The Signal has provided information on ship waiting times since Jan. 27. Waiting time has remained at an average of around one week since then.

What’s causing the traffic jam

Extended anchorage times have forced some ocean carriers to cancel multiple sailings this month. Not due to lack of cargo demand, but rather, due to lack of available ships to handle those services.

Delays on the landside are causing the logjam at sea. Extremely high inbound volumes combined with logistical complications both inside and outside the ports are causing the landside delays.

One of the challenges inside the ports involves COVID infections among dockworkers. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) reported 694 of its members had tested positive as of Jan. 17. By Jan. 25, the number had jumped to 803.

Charting the course of congestion

As previously reported by American Shipper, the number of container ships at anchor already exceeds the number during the labor dispute between the ILWU and their employers in 2014-15.

The Marine Exchange provided American Shipper with historical data starting in January 2019 to put the current backlog of container ships into perspective.

California container congestion data
(Chart data: Marine Exchange of Southern California. Data bi-monthly Jan 2019-Nov 2020; daily Dec 2020-present)

The data shows that the number of container ships at berth started to ramp up in July. A steady rise in the number of ships at anchor began in November.

By year end, the number of container ships at anchor had risen to 30. It has remained between the high 20s and up to 40 ships ever since. Meanwhile, the number of ships at the berths in Los Angeles and Long Beach has remained in the high 20s and low 30s.

Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, told American Shipper: “We seem to have settled into a new, new normal of roughly 30 container ships at anchor. Whether that will continue or not, I don’t know.”

Consumers to see emptier shelves

That new, new normal will be increasingly felt by consumers.

Lauren Brand, president of the National Association of Waterfront Employers, testified at a House subcommittee hearing on Tuesday that ships currently offshore hold around 190,000 truckloads of goods.

“Right now, there are containers holding parts for manufacturing and assembly sites in the United States. We’re going to see some of those start to falter in their schedules the longer this goes on.

“I asked one of my local retailers, Chico’s, if they had certain spring colors. They said ‘no,’ because they were stuck at the port,” said Brand.

“We’re seeing a decline in the fashion market. Maybe some Valentine’s Day goods are stuck. We’ll see Easter goods getting stuck. And we’ll see things that are actually arriving too late to go to market. So, there will be an economic impact, from consumer goods to manufacturing.” Click for more FreightWaves/American Shipper articles by Greg Miller 

MORE ON CONTAINERS: America’s container-shipping gridlock: California vs. Georgia: see story here. Trans-Pacific trade crashes into ceiling: see story here. COVID outbreak could cripple ports: see story here. Inside California’s container-ship traffic jam: see story here.

Greg Miller, Senior Editor

Greg Miller covers maritime for FreightWaves and American Shipper. After graduating Cornell University, he fled upstate New York's harsh winters for the island of St. Thomas, where he rose to editor-in-chief of the Virgin Islands Business Journal. In the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn, he moved to New York City, where he served as senior editor of Cruise Industry News. He then spent 15 years at the shipping magazine Fairplay in various senior roles, including managing editor. He currently resides in Manhattan with his wife and two Shih Tzus.

29 Comments

  1. One thing not mentioned is the availability of trucks to move these containers from the ports. CARB has imposed so many restrictions on truck owners they don’t want to go there or just can’t because their trucks are to old.

  2. This is not my field, but why are those ships not diverted to Oakland, Seattle or Portland? Or do they have the same problem?

  3. I just flew into LAX from the South. We came right up that arrival corridor out by Catalina and I videoed the whole thing and there weren’t more than five ships anchored out there. This is a bunch of nothing and I have the video to prove it.

    1. The material supply and rising prices problem that I am seeing in my job as a construction project manager are telling a story that a video will not be able to – unless it’s getting better?? I hope so.

    2. I walk out my door every morning to count 20+ container ships from Huntington Beach to Long Beach harbor. It’s not a bunch of nothing, it’s a lot of something