October 19, 2022

Zero ships waiting off Southern California

Not a single container ship waited offshore of the ports of Los Angeles or Long Beach on Tuesday. It was the first time the queue had gone to zero since October 2020, in the early days of the COVID-era consumer boom. “The container-ship backup for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach has ended,” declared Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, in a statement to the media. “It is time to move into a different phase of operations.” The backup may be over in Southern California, but it’s not yet over for North America overall. An American Shipper survey of MarineTraffic ship-position data and port queue lists showed 59 container ships waiting off North American ports on Tuesday morning, mainly along the East and Gulf coasts. That’s still well above pre-COVID levels, when numbers were in the single digits. But congestion is clearly easing: The count is down 60% from the peaks earlier this year.

The rise and fall of the SoCal queue

The traffic jam of container ships off Southern California began garnering headlines in early 2021 and became emblematic of the supply chain crisis (see aerial video here).

Southern California’s ship queue shot to new heights in the second half of 2021. The extremely high number of vessels anchored and loitering in close proximity to each other in San Pedro Bay and the surrounding waters raised both safety and environmental concerns.

A new queuing system was launched on Nov. 16, 2021, to address those concerns. Instead of securing a spot on the waiting list on a first-come, first-served basis, inbound ships were assigned a so-called “Calculated Time of Arrival” (CTA) as soon as they sailed from their prior ports. Their position in line was dictated by the CTA, so they had no need to race across the Pacific and wait close by. Ships were urged to voluntarily wait outside port waters. Most loitered off the Baja peninsula.

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