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West Coast Ports Agree to Queue System, LB Port Congestion Crimps Container Volume

The Port of Long Beach said limited capacity at its terminals hampered imports last month, but amid extended 24/7 operating hours, volumes were still strong enough to mark the port’s second-busiest October of all time.

Dockworkers and terminal operators moved 789,716 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), down 2.1 percent from last year’s October, the strongest on record. Imports stepped back 4.3 percent to 385,000 TEUs, while exports increased 6.6 percent to 122,214 TEUs.

Empty containers moving through the port declined 2.4 percent to 282,502 TEUs.

Year-to-date, the number of TEUs loaded inbound totals 3,860,765, a 20.3 percent jump. And despite the year-over-year decline in movement, empty containers inbound totaled 130,674, still a 9.2 percent boost since Jan. 1.

“Every sector of the supply chain has reached capacity and it is time for all of us to step up and get these goods delivered,” said Mario Cordero, executive director at the Port of Long Beach. “In Long Beach, we are trying to add capacity by searching for vacant land to store containers, expanding the hours of operation at terminals, and implementing a fee that will incentivize ocean carriers to pull their containers out of the Port as soon as possible.”

Long Beach’s sister port, The Port of Los Angeles, has not broken out its October numbers yet.

The results come as a new queuing system is being required at both ports in yet the latest effort to reduce the congestion, particularly for ships anchored at sea.

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Effective Tuesday and developed by the Pacific Maritime Association, Pacific Merchant Shipping Association and Marine Exchange of Southern California, as well as individuals from member companies, the new procedures call for each vessel to be assigned a place in the arrival queue based on their departure time from their last port of call, and require vessels to wait for an available berth approximately 150 miles off the California coast.

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have both signed off on the queuing system.

This process aims to help vessels slow their speed and spread out, ideally reducing vessels at anchor before the onset of winter weather, as well as reducing emissions near the coastline. Under the current system, container vessels enter the arrival queue based on when they cross a line 20 nautical miles from the San Pedro Bay Port Complex.

“The new container vessel queuing process creates a fair and transparent system to reduce vessels at anchor near the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach,” said Pacific Maritime Association CEO Jim McKenna. “Designed through strong collaboration between the PMA, PMSA and Marine Exchange of Southern California, this new procedure will improve maritime safety and air quality while helping ensure ports operate as efficiently as possible.”

It could take between four and six weeks to reduce the number of vessels at anchor, estimated to be from 25 to 35, according to an executive summary detailing the new process. The new process will not apply to ships currently in the arrival queue.

Both The Port of Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles enacted a congestion dwell fee on Nov. 1, charging ocean carriers for cargo containers that remain too long on the docks. The program is aimed at speeding the flow of cargo containers moving through the twin ports and reducing a record number of vessels waiting off the Southern California coast, but has been heavily contested by importers, freight forwarders and trade associations alike due to the possibility that the fines will just be passed on to the importers in the form of higher costs.

As of Thursday, the Port of Long Beach has seen a 28 percent decrease in loaded import containers (18,345 in total) dwelling past their respective nine-day time limits, when compared to the totals on Oct. 28. This is a significant jump from the 20 percent decline just a day earlier on Nov. 10, and the 14 percent decline the day before.

In Los Angeles, import containers that dwelled at the port for more than nine days have dropped 28.5 percent from Nov. 1 to Nov. 10 (30,210 in total), above the 22 percent drop on Nov. 9 and the 16 percent dip on Nov. 8.

With that in mind, the fines at both ports have, at least in the short term, cleared out some of the congestion. The queuing system now gives the ports another short-term reprieve without having to worry about potentially upsetting the carriers and importers alike.

“We are working around the clock at the Port,” said Long Beach Harbor Commission president Steven Neal. “We’re doing everything we can with help from the supply chain to get goods off the ships and onto store shelves in time for the holidays.”

The Port of Long Beach has moved 7,884,565 TEUs during the first 10 months of 2021, up 21 percent from the same period in 2020. The port is on pace to move more than 9 million TEUs by the end of this year, well surpassing the current record of 8.1 million TEUs achieved in 2020.

As part of the new queuing system, vessels will operate outside the new boundaries known as the Safety and Air Quality Area, designed by the Marine Exchange of Southern California to limit the number of container vessels near the port complex.

While awaiting a berth, eastbound ships must remain 150 miles west of Southern California, while northbound and southbound ships must remain more than 50 miles from California and Mexico. Vessels can come into the harbor for fuel, crew changes and regular ship business per normal processes.

“The San Pedro Bay Ports play a critical role in California’s statewide economic health,” said PMSA president John McLaurin. “This system delivers a pragmatic solution through order and predictability that will reduce the number of ships idling off the coast in the coming months, improve safety, and support the efficient movement of container-based goods.”