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Volume at US Ports Hits All-Time High

U.S. cargo imports set another record high this spring as the country’s major container ports worked to reduce congestion and retailers stocked up before dockworkers’ West Coast labor contract expired. That deadline, originally July 1, has been extended.

According to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates, U.S. ports handled 2.4 million 20-foot containers or equivalent units (TEU) in May, up 6 percent from April and 2.7 percent more year over year. This was also a new record for the number of containers imported in a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002, topping 2.34 million TEU from the month prior.

“Cargo volume is expected to remain high as we head into the peak shipping season and it is essential that all ports continue to operate with minimal disruption,” Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy, said. “Supply chain challenges will continue throughout the remainder of the year, and it is particularly important that labor and management at West Coast ports remain at the bargaining table and reach an agreement.”

The contract talks between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association are continuing. NRF and more than 150 groups wrote to President Biden last week asking the administration to work with both sides to avoid disruption.

Ports saw a surge in activity this spring as a slowdown in cargo from Chinese factories closed by Covid-19 gave them a chance to clear built-up congestion. Retailers bringing in seasonal merchandise and importing other goods early to avoid any problems related to the contract negotiations might have also contributed to the large volume.

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“Congestion of ships waiting to berth on the West Coast has eased and we expect to see the same on the East Coast as carriers begin to return to their normal patterns of port calls,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said.

Ports have not yet reported June numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.25 million TEU, a 4.8 percent increase from the same month in 2021. That would bring the first half of the year to 13.5 million TEU, a 5.4 percent year-over-year increase.

July cargo shipments reaching U.S. ports are forecast at 2.31 million TEU, up 5.3 percent from last year, while August is projected to dip 0.5 percent to 2.26 million TEU and September to be down 0.8 percent to 2.12 million TEU. Looking ahead to the fall, October container imports are also expected to reach 2.12 million TEU, a 4.1 percent decline from the same month last year, and November to be down 2.5 percent to 2.06 million TEU.

The year-over-year declines during the second half of the year contrast with unusually high numbers during the same period in 2021, but remain elevated, and the full year is still expected to see a net increase over 2021, Global Port Tracker noted. Cargo container imports for all of 2021 totaled 25.8 million TEU, a 17.4 percent increase over 2020’s previous annual record of 22 million TEU.

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by Hackett Associates, provides historical data and forecasts for the U.S. ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach and Oakland, Calif., and Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., on the West Coast; New York-New Jersey; Port of Virginia; Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga., and Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville, Fla., on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.