The congestion that has plagued the country's busiest port complex for the last few months as the docks grapple with bigger cargo ships, equipment shortages and labor problems is making it tough for the harbors' traffic cops.
On Wednesday morning, 11 cargo ships were waiting "at anchor" for their turn to dock at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which monitors ship traffic at the two ports. When port operations are running normally, no more than one container vessel must wait to dock. (But in recent weeks, 11 has become a more "normal" number. )
"You're talking about anchoring ships that are between 500 and 1200 feet long, massive ships that weigh hundreds of thousands of tons," says Captain Kip Louttit, the Executive Director of the Marine Exchange. "It's not just like moving checkers around on a board,"
Cargo container ships have gotten larger in the last five years, and Louttit says anchoring them has become more complicated. An anchorage must be both long enough and deep enough to support a ship. "Some of the anchorages therefore can't be used if we get too many big ships," Louttit says.
Louttit says the workload has probably doubled in the last six weeks for the Marine Exchange's five specialists, who keep in regular contact with the agents for ships arriving into the ports. Normally, a ship anchors for a day or two for repairs or refueling, then goes to its berth for loading or unloading, then leaves the complex. But with the congestion, there are more movements to communicate and coordinate.
"You get ships that are sitting out there for days or a week, and you have to call every morning to say 'hey, is it moving yet? Nope, it's not.' Then you get a phone call later: 'now we do have a movement.' Then another call later: 'no, we don't.'"
Larger cargo ships are one element of the congestion problem. They bring in more cargo at one time that require more time and labor to unload.
Once on the docks, cargo containers are stacking up because of a shortage of trailer chassis, the flat-bed carriers that attach the containers to trucks so they can be hauled to their next stop on the supply chain.
Adding tension and uncertainty to the congestion is the on-going contract negotiations between the union representing dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports and the international shipping companies that use them. That labor contract expired in July.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) representing the shipping companies have accused each other of contributing to the slowdown at the ports and at the negotiating table. But both sides have continued to negotiate and avoided talk of a strike or lock-out.