Ships bound for backlogged California ports forced out to sea: report

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Backlogged container ships stranded off of the coast of southern California waiting for their chance to enter port have been moving farther out to sea due to safety concerns brought on by poor winter weather conditions, satellite images show.

Only about 30 ships were within view of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two largest ports in the country, The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, while over 60 others were forced farther out to sea amid high winds and rough seas. 

Some are hundreds or even thousands of miles away, including vessels incoming from Asia that have reduced their speed in anticipation of delays, The Journal said. The ships are complying with a voluntary system put in place by shipping officials last month ahead of inclement weather conditions in the winter that pose a safety hazard, the paper said.

Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California that oversees ship movements in the area, told The Journal that “Container ships are very tall and blow around a lot in the wind.”

“The numbers were not going down, so therefore we needed to find a way to spread the ships out,” he said.

Container ships moored off the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports in Long Beach, California, U.S., on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021.
Inclement winter weather conditions are forcing more container ships from Asia to slow down.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Vessels raced across the ocean ahead of the new system’s implementation in order to cross a line 20 nautical miles, or about 23 miles, from shore to secure a waitlist position at one of the ports’ terminals, Jessica Alvarenga, a spokeswoman for the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, told the paper.

Once ships make their final departure for the U.S., usually from China, captains receive an estimated date of berth and are able to slow their speed as they approach. Jim McKenna, chief executive of the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents West Coast terminal operators in labor negotiations, said that the trip from Asia that used to only take 10 to 14 days can now take some ships as long as 22 to 24 days.

Container ships at anchor outside the Port of Los Angeles, California on Nov. 2, 2021.
Container ships at anchor outside the Port of Los Angeles, California on Nov. 2, 2021.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ships approaching California from Asia are asked to stay more than 150 miles offshore, while those from the north and south are asked to stay more than 50 miles offshore to prevent collisions.

According to The Journal, the two ports handled 7.7 million import containers between January and September, up 21 percent from the same months in 2019 before the pandemic.

Nahal Mogharabi, a spokeswoman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, told the paper her agency estimates a 60 percent increase in smog emissions as a result of port activity.

The massive delay of container ships arriving at California ports comes amid a busy holiday season.
The massive delay of container ships arriving at California ports comes amid a busy holiday season.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

The neighboring ports account for about one-third of all U.S. imports that have left many millions anxious about supply chain issues ahead of the holiday shopping season. In October, when over 100 ships were afloat outside of the ports, the White House announced the Port of Los Angeles, UPS, FedEx and Walmart would move to 24/7 work hours to alleviate the supply-chain issues. However, the change has had little effect due to the massive volume of imports.

The backlog has also caused an increase in container thefts. According to cargo theft recovery and prevention network CargoNet, thieves stole more than $5 million worth of goods as in California during the third quarter of 2021, a surge of about 42 percent from a year ago.

Container ships moored off the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports in Long Beach, California, U.S., on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021.
Executive director Kip Louttit anticipates more container ships spreading out and staying away from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Some retailers have even floated the idea of purchasing or leasing their own private fleet of freight ships.

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