Southern California has a very complex history. It was the home of Spanish conquistadors and then Mexico, which in turn became part of the United States. The region is now known for its natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, but it also faces intense urbanization pressure from people who leave behind small homesteads to seek better opportunities elsewhere.
The backlog of cargo ships waiting to reach the country’s biggest port complex isn’t going away any time soon. However, it has migrated away from the beach.
This week, just around 30 ships waited within sight of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, waiting for berths at a crossing that has come to represent supply-chain bottlenecks in the United States. More than 60 more ships planned for the port complex remained hundreds or perhaps thousands of kilometers away, including ships that slowed down throughout their journey from Asia to avoid arriving on time.
The ships are following a voluntary arrangement established up by maritime authorities last month in response to concerns that the ports may be unable to safely absorb the crush of waiting boats when winter weather arrives with heavy winds and severe seas.
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“Container ships are quite tall and move about a lot in the wind,” said Kip Louttit, executive director of the Southern California Marine Exchange, which tracks ship movements in the region. “We needed to find a means to spread the ships out since the numbers were not going down.”
According to Jessica Alvarenga, a spokeswoman for the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which represents ocean carriers and West Coast terminal operators, many ships rushed across the Pacific to secure a berth at a container terminal by crossing a line 20 nautical miles from the ports before the new system was put in place.
Once ships depart their previous port of call, which is generally China, they are put on a waiting list under the new system. According to Ms. Alvarenga, this offers captains an approximate date for a berth and enables them to delay their approach to the United States.
A large portion of the fleet of cargo ships waiting to unload has been concealed from view by the system. However, the backlog at the busiest port for U.S. container imports is as long as it’s ever been, with a line of ships stretching across the Pacific, indicating that large volumes of cargo are still on their way to port terminals, warehouses, and transportation networks that have been overwhelmed by the imports.
According to research and consultancy company Beacon Economics, between January and September, the adjacent ports processed the equivalent of 7.7 million loaded import containers, up 21% over the same months in 2019, before the epidemic.
The Port of Los Angeles in California is failing to keep up with the influx of cargo containers arriving at its ports, resulting in one of the world’s most serious supply-chain bottlenecks. The scale of the issue and the difficulties of the procedure are shown in this rare aerial footage. Thomas C. Miller is the photographer for this image.
The Biden administration and maritime authorities have attempted to decrease the backlog with measures such as extending the hours trucks are allowed to pick up boxes. Because of labor limitations, transportation equipment shortages, and the sheer amount of boxes streaming into and out of the ports, the regulations have had minimal effect.
A month ago, 86 container ships waited at anchor or in designated drift zones within 40 miles of the port complex, which was a record at the time. According to the Marine Exchange, the number of ships waiting for a berth in the vicinity had dropped to 30, while another 66 ships were travelling into the port at slower speeds, known in the industry as slow-steaming, or were waiting outside a new safety zone.
Some ships now take 22 to 24 days to finish a journey from Asia that used to take 10 to 14 days, according to Jim McKenna, CEO of the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents West Coast port operators in labor discussions.
The new system, according to Mr. McKenna, is excellent for the environment because it keeps pollutants from idle ships away from heavily populated Southern California, and ships use less fuel when they slow down.
Additional Information from the Logistics Report
Ships approaching California from Asia are advised to keep more than 150 miles away from the coast, while ships coming from the north or south are advised to stay 50 miles away from the coast in order to spread out and prevent accidents.
Although the new approach decreases the number of ships close to shore, near-shore congestion remains greater than it was before the epidemic, said to Nahal Mogharabi, a spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, an air-pollution regulator.
According to Ms. Mogharabi, the California Air Resources Board estimates that the cargo boom has resulted in a 60% rise in smog-forming pollutants from port operations.
Mr. Louttit said that gusts of 40 to 50 mph forced eight ships to drag their anchors down the seabed in November, while one ship burnt out the engine on equipment used to lift its anchor. Mr. Louttit said that no harm was done as a result of the occurrence.
The US Coast Guard is also looking into whether an oil leak near the port complex in October was caused by a waiting ship’s dragging anchor colliding with an undersea pipeline.
Mr. Louttit claimed that during this time of year, high winds wash through the San Pedro Bay seas near the ports at least once a month, and that it was “inappropriate” to have so many boats so close together.
Paul Berger can be reached at Paul.Berger@wsj.com.
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