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California retains high-flying results despite pandemic obstacles

California ports saw increased volumes in November, maintaining the upward trend of the last few months despite the Covid-19 crisis, which has caused significant difficulties in the supply chain. However, the ports' chiefs remain cautious about the future as long as the pandemic remains out of control.

In particular, the Port of Long Beach (POLB) reported its best November on record, lifted by the holiday retail rush and a surge in personal protective equipment (PPE) deliveries amid the latest nationwide wave of pandemic cases.

The boost comes at the end of the peak shipping season as retailers prepare for the upcoming holidays and an increase in online spending resulting from consumers opting to stay at home during the recent uptick in Covid-19 cases.

"Online shopping and PPE purchases are on the rise as consumers continue the stay-at-home lifestyle, but the overall economic outlook is uncertain with another wave of Covid-19 spreading across the country," said Mario Cordero, POLB executive director.

Terminal operators at Long Beach handled 87 container ships in November with an overall 783,523TEU, which translates to a 30.6% increase compared to the same month in 2019. POLB imports were up 30.5% to 382,677TEU, exports were down 5.2% to 117,283TEU, while empty containers shipped overseas rose 55% to 283,563TEU. From January until November, the port has moved approximately 7.3 million TEU, which is a 4.7% jump from the same period in 2019.

"We’re dealing with the surge in containers by partnering with stakeholders, utilising a temporary storage yard and prioritising dual transaction truck trips that balance inbound and outbound cargo flows," noted Cordero.

"We remain cautiously optimistic and intend to maintain the high level of service that the Port of Long Beach is known for," added Long Beach harbour commission president, Frank Colonna.

Similarly, the Port of Los Angeles (POLA), the largest container port in the US has announced a 22% increase in its November volumes, compared to the same month in the previous year, thanks to a combination of increased consumer spending, holiday shipments and replenishment of warehouse inventories.

"It’s unusual to see this kind of import activity this late in the year. But 2020 has been anything but normal," commented POLA executive director, Gene Seroka who went on to say, "With consumers continuing to stay at home and purchase goods rather than services, we expect robust activity on our docks to continue for at least several months."

The port has reported 889,746TEU last month with its loaded imports boosted to 464,820TEU and loaded exports decreased to 130,917TEU. At the same time, empty containers, heavily in demand in Asia, raised by 34.2% to 294,010TEU. POLA has welcomed 88 cargo vessels in November, including nine extra loaders, while there were no void sailings.

Year to date, overall cargo volume is 3% lower compared to 2019, as the first five months of 2020 saw cargo volumes plummet nearly 19% compared to last year. Since then, imports from Asia have been coming at a record pace while US exports have decreased in 23 of the last 25 months at the Port.

Seroka also mentioned that new digital platforms have been created by the port, such as "Signal" for the port's imports and the "Return Signal" for the trucking community. "To help stakeholders manage the cargo influx, the Port has introduced new data tools for asset planning, provided additional land for chassis and containers, and is working with cargo owners large and small to prioritise their shipments," he said.

Moreover, the Port of Oakland has published more "down to earth" monthly figures, with a modest upturn of 1% in its imports and a small drop of 2.6% in its exports, compared to November 2019.

The port officials claimed mounting cargo, congestion at Southern California ports, and the resulting vessel delays contributed to fewer containers than expected coming through the Oakland seaport in November.

"The cargo is there, it’s just delayed. We expect to see higher import cargo volume numbers this month [December] compared to December 2019," stated Port of Oakland maritime director, Bryan Brandes.

Maritime experts say that huge import volumes have disrupted normal shipping schedules, resulting in cargo delivery delays through ports. Some California exporters add they are having a challenge finding enough containers to get their product to overseas markets.

Import demand is prompting ocean carriers to rush empty containers back to Asia where they can be loaded for goods headed to America, according to an Oakland Port statement.

"The Port of Oakland is working closely with ocean carriers, importers, freight forwarders, agricultural exporters, and container providers to help facilitate communications and solutions for any equipment shortages," noted Brandes.

From January through November 2020, the port has totalled 197,692TEU, which translates to a slight 0.2% increase compared to the same period last year.

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