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California port pileup shatters record and imports still haven’t peaked

The U.S. congestion crisis has never been more severe than it is now — and it’s getting worse.

Hope for any relief this year has vanished. French carrier CMA CGM is the latest in a long line of market participants to push back its timeline on normalization. Capacity constraints “are expected to continue until the first half of 2022,” CMA CGM warned on Friday 27 August.

More ships stuck at anchor than ever before; from 40 to 44 to 46

According to the Marine Exchange of Southern California, there were 47 container ships at anchor or drifting off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Sunday, a new all-time high. The earlier high of 40 at anchor was set on Feb. 1 and matched several times last week. The tally rose to 44 on Friday and stood at 46 on Monday.

Pre-COVID, an average of 16 container ships were at berths or at anchor on any given day (with any ships at anchor being a rare occurrence). On Sunday, there were 76 box ships either at berths, at anchor or drifting — 4.8 times the pre-COVID level.

There are now almost 60% more container ships at anchor than at berth

Automatic identification system (AIS) ship-positioning data from MarineTraffic revealed extreme congestion in Southern California on Monday, with more than a half-dozen ships forced to drift because anchorage spots were full.

Even higher volumes on the way

“The expected spike in imports generated by the peak season and pre-shipped cargo is already here, making the operation more complex,” said Hapag-Lloyd on Friday, referring to congestion in Los Angeles and Long Beach. Hapag-Lloyd said that it does not expect California anchorages to clear in 2021.

The Port of Los Beach’s WAVE report, which estimates future arrivals, predicts volumes will rise in the weeks ahead. It forecast loaded import volumes of 120,928 twenty-foot equivalent units for the last week of September, up 34% from the estimated 89,980 TEUs of imports due to arrive next week.

Signal, the Port of Los Angeles’ planning tool, shows the same upward trend, with import volumes of 178,426 TEUs expected the week of Sept. 12-18, up 49% from an estimated 120,070 TEUs this week.

Another forward indicator is a proprietary index of shippers’ bookings on FreightWaves’ SONAR platform. The index has risen sharply in recent weeks, implying higher volumes arriving at U.S. ports in late September and into October.

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