Los Angeles imports keep sinking as East Coast gains more ground

The Port of Los Angeles reported yet another month of falling volumes on Tuesday, as the import pendulum continues to swing away from the West Coast and toward container shipping gateways on the East and Gulf coasts.

Los Angeles’ total throughput for October came in at 678,429 twenty-foot equivalent units, down 25% versus October 2021.

Imports totaled 336,307 TEUs, down 28% year on year.

It was the lowest October import tally since 2009 amid the global financial crisis and the lowest monthly imports since May 2020 at the height of the COVID lockdowns. This October’s imports were down 14% from October 2019 prior to the pandemic.

On a positive note, the huge month-on-month slide seen in Los Angeles in September has slowed. Imports fell 15% in September versus August. October’s imports declined only 7,155 TEUs (i.e., a single shipload) or 2% versus September.

(Chart: American Shipper based on data from Port of Los Angeles)

During Tuesday’s news conference, Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka said carriers “blanked” (canceled) 20 sailings in October, removing about 25% of normal service. An additional 20 sailings have been blanked in November and December combined.

“November numbers will be soft, and so will December,” Seroka acknowledged.

‘We need to get labor peace’

Seroka blamed “the steep decline” on three factors: a lack of a West Coast port labor contract, an early peak season and lower consumer spending on durables compared to purchases during the pandemic.

Both Seroka and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti repeatedly highlighted the labor issue during the news conference. The previous West Coast port labor agreement expired on July 1.

Seroka said that he has been on a “whistlestop tour” and “knocking on doors,” speaking to shippers and carriers in the U.S., Asia and Europe and “looking to get that allocation back to Los Angeles.” But he admitted that “it starts with getting a labor agreement … where they can feel that certainty of the cargo flow and getting to market on time.”

Garcetti stressed “we need to get labor peace and an agreement done.” However, he insisted “there will not be a strike. I don’t say this as someone trying to market [Los Angeles], but the remaining issues are so much more minor than in past years when we’ve been able to resolve this.”

Regarding the cargo shift to the East Coast and the Port of New York/New Jersey recently unseating Los Angeles as America’s busiest port, Seroka said, “We’ve been in the No. 1 position here for 22 consecutive years, and one or two months [in second place] is not going to create a trend. Our dwell times have improved and the ship backlog is nearly gone. We’re eager to ramp volume back up.”

Long Beach month-on-month decline worse than LA’s

Declines in Los Angeles were mirrored in the neighboring Port of Long Beach, highlighting the pressures facing West Coast ports.

On Thursday, Long Beach reported a 24% year-on-year drop in imports to 293,924 TEUs. It was the port’s lowest import number in any month since April 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic. It was Long Beach’s lowest import total for the month of October since 2012 and was down 13% from October 2019, pre-pandemic.

(Chart: American Shipper based on data from Port of Long Beach)

October imports sank 48,747 TEUs or 14% in October versus September, a much steeper month-on-month decline than in Los Angeles.

East Coast ports take more market share

The import picture at East and Gulf Coast ports remains in stark contrast to the situation at West Coast ports. These ports are still near their all-time highs.

On Monday, Savannah, Georgia, reported October imports of 263,828 TEUs, its second best monthly total ever behind the record reached in August. It was the port’s best-ever October for imports, up 2% year on year and up 32% from October 2019, pre-COVID.

(Chart: American Shipper based on data from Georgia Ports Authority)

Savannah posted an increase of 53,461 TEUs or 25% in October versus September, when imports were depressed by the Hurricane Ian closure.

In its monthly release in October, the port said it expected to clear its anchorages by the end of November. That is proving too optimistic: As of Tuesday, there were still 33 container vessels at anchor off the coast of Georgia.

The Port of Charleston in South Carolina also reported its October throughput on Monday. Loaded imports came in at 121,305 TEUs, up 13% year on year, 7% month on month and 27% versus October 2019, pre-pandemic. It was Charleston’s best October for imports ever and its fifth-highest monthly import total. 

(Chart: American Shipper based on data from South Carolina Ports Authority)

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