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As Volumes Shift, Shippers Rely on Container Tracking

December 8, 2023

You’ve seen the headlines: the East Coast volume boom is beginning to wane, with prominent West Coast ports like LA and Long Beach regaining significant portions of the volumes lost in the wake of pandemic-era congestion and labor anxieties.

But as maritime volumes readjust to something closer to “normal,” whatever that means, shippers are left wondering how to survive and thrive in a dynamic volume environment.

This article delves into the history behind the East Coast volume boom, what’s driving the shift back to the West, and how shippers can leverage innovative container tracking solutions to navigate a fast-changing maritime landscape.

Of Strikes and Strife: Diving into Recent West Coast Woes

To say that West Coast ports have struggled in recent years is, to say the least, an understatement.

First, pandemic-era logjams resulted in unprecedented delays. Images of container ships waiting outside the Port of LA went viral, with vessels waiting up to 9 days for a berth to become available. “It’s like being on a freeway in traffic,” Danny Miranda, the president of ​​ILWU Local 94, told The Guardian in a 2021 article focusing on congestion at the Port of Long Beach. “There’s nowhere to go. Every space is being utilized.” According to a United Nations Conference on Trade and Development case study focusing on the Ports of LA and Long Beach, “From mid-2021, the ports experienced massive logjams of container vessels at anchor, with an average of 30 vessels waiting at any given time. The crisis abated slightly between mid-April and the end of July 2021, when the average number of vessels anchored dropped to about ten. In August 2021, this number surged to record levels (60-80 vessels) as congestion resumed, mainly due to the peak import season of the late summer and early Autumn.”

But even as pandemic-era congestion finally began to ease in the first half of 2022, another threat to efficiency appeared at what were, at the time, the nation’s busiest ports. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (or ILWU), unhappy with wages, benefits, and the threat of automation at West Coast ports, began organizing for a strike after drawn-out and highly contentious negotiations with carriers represented by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). While an ILWU strike on the West Coast never materialized, the threat of a strike, paired with a series of high-profile work stoppages, was enough to cause significant anxiety among shippers. Even after a tentative deal was reached between the PMA and ILWU in June of 2023, shippers remained nervous about sending volumes to the West Coast.

Labor-related anxieties, paired with fresh memories of historic port congestion, resulted in a striking shift in U.S. maritime volumes. As the West Coast struggled, shippers fled to the East in droves. Ports along the East and Gulf Coasts of the U.S. experienced unprecedented shipping booms, with a few ports standing out above the rest:

  • Port Houston saw a 19.6% increase in YoY TEU between 2021 and 2022.
  • The Port of Savannah set a record in August of 2022, processing 575,513 containers compared with 485,595 in the same period of 2021.
  • The Port of Virginia in August 2022 recorded its second-busiest month ever, moving 340,926 TEUs, up 10.7% compared with 307,023 in 2021.

Nowhere was the shift more apparent than at the Port of New York, which, after years of playing second fiddle to its West Coast counterparts, was declared the No.1 port in the U.S., according to reporting from CNBC.

While this increase was music to the years of East Coast port operators, some thought that the shift spelled doom for the West Coast’s historic dominance in a globalized maritime economy. But as the East Coast soon found out, nothing lasts forever.

Nothing Lasts Forever: Shippers Say ‘Westward, Ho!’ as Port Dynamics Return to Pre-Pandemic Norms

As pandemic backlogs and labor anxieties fade into memory, shippers and BCOs have been shifting volumes back to the West in recent months. September 2023, for the second month in a row, saw West Coast volumes outperforming those seen at East Coast ports. “Inbound volume at the top East and Gulf Coast ports fell 13.4% year on year (y/y) in September,” according to a FreightWaves article, “while West Coast volumes rose 16.7%, equating to a 30.1-percentage-point spread in favor of the West Coast. The spread in August was 11.4 points in favor of the West Coast.”

Meanwhile, Transport Topics reported that TEU at the Port of Long Beach hit over 755,150 in October, a remarkable 14.7% increase YoY. And Long Beach isn’t alone.

  • The Port of Los Angeles saw a 7% increase YoY in October TEU, rising from 678,429 in 2022 to 725,774 in 2023.
  • The dual ports of Seattle and Tacoma saw a substantial, though smaller, increase of 0.9%, with volumes rising from 272,129 TEU in October 2022 to 274,626 in October 2023.

On the East Coast, a different, much grimmer picture is beginning to emerge.

  • At Port Houston, TEU dropped 2% YoY in October 2023, with volumes slipping from 371,994 in 2022 to 366,208 in 2023.
  • The Port of Charleston saw an 8.5% decline in volumes, with October 2023 TEU falling to 235,996 from 2022’s 256,879.
  • The drop in East Coast volumes was felt most keenly at Georgia’s Port of Savannah, where volumes dropped 18.7%YoY to 449,007 in October from last year’s 552,806.
  • Always ahead of the trends, New York saw port volumes decrease 21% YoY in August 2023, with port leadership blaming inventory drawbacks from retailers.

“Our terminal operators, labor, and other stakeholders have worked hard to earn cargo market share back over the last three months,” Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka told Transport Topics. “Additionally, November is also shaping up to be a strong month as we see a final holiday push and warehouse replenishment.”

As port volumes return to the West Coast, it’s time for shippers to revamp their efficiency strategies. As a result, smart shippers are turning to ocean container tracking to bolster performance at increasingly crowded ports along the U.S. West Coast.

As Volumes Rebound on the West Coast, Shippers Turn to Container Tracking

As port volumes return, so too do threats of congestion and inefficiency. Increasingly, shippers are leveraging ocean container tracking software to optimize maritime operations in a dynamic volume landscape. In this section, we’re diving into three features of ocean container tracking that shippers can use to maximize operational resilience, agility, and efficiency in the face of fast-shifting volumes.

Real-Time Port Visibility

As volumes rise, on-demand information is vital. Ocean container tracking provides shippers with real-time visibility into port activities. Instant updates on container locations, terminal conditions, and vessel movements empower shippers to make quick decisions, avoiding delays and optimizing their supply chain.

Integrated Analytics for Dynamic Planning

Dealing with fluctuating port conditions requires proactive strategies. Ocean container tracking software leverages analytics to give shippers a real-time understanding of container performance trends. Shippers can anticipate potential congestion, plan for peak periods, and optimize container movements. By embracing data-driven insights, shippers stay ahead of port trends, ensuring efficient operations even in high-volume scenarios.

Automated Exception Alerts for Proactive Decision-Making

Rapid changes in port dynamics demand swift reactions. Ocean container tracking solutions offer automated exception alerts to provide shippers with the latest information. Through a fully integrated, cloud-based container tracking API, shippers receive instant notifications about issues like port congestion, blank sailings, or delays. This enables proactive decision-making, allowing shippers to reroute shipments, prioritize drayage, and mitigate disruptions before they impact the supply chain.

In the face of rising volumes and port complexities, ocean container tracking is a vital strategic ally for shippers, providing the tools to navigate the West Coast's dynamic supply chain landscape effectively.

In a Dynamic Maritime Environment, Shippers Turn to OpenTrack for Unparalleled Ocean Visibility

If the past few years have taught logistics professionals anything, it’s that change is inevitable. By partnering with OpenTrack to access the latest ocean container tracking technology, shippers can leverage unparalleled insight into maritime operations to ensure they’re operating at peak efficiency.

Book a demo with OpenTrack today, and learn how ocean container tracking software can help you build the resilience demanded by today’s volatile maritime environment.

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