California ship pileup still piling up — but out of sight, over horizon

All-time-high 93 ships waiting, including vessels in new queuing system,

By one measure, the number of container ships stuck waiting offshore of Los Angeles and Long Beach has plummeted. The logjam hit a peak of 86 container ships offshore on Nov. 16, according to data from the Marine Exchange of Southern California. A week later, it was a mere 61, the lowest since early October.

Problem solved?

Far from it. The waiting container ships are still out there — more of them than ever. It’s just that more are over the horizon, where you can’t see them, thanks to the successful implementation of a new queuing system that began last week.

“The overall flow of container ships and big-picture backup has not changed,” acknowledged Marine Exchange of Southern California Executive Director Kip Louttit.

If you include all of the container ships physically at anchor on Tuesday off LA/LB, plus the ships in holding patterns within 40 miles of the ports, which were counted in the previous queuing system, plus all the ships waiting further afield that are now technically in the queue under the new system, then 93 container vessels were waiting for berths at Los Angeles/Long Beach on Tuesday, a new all-time high.

Chart: American Shipper based on data from the Marine Exchange of Southern California. Counted under old system: ships reported by the Marine Exchange comprising number at anchor plus loitering within 40 miles. Counted under new system: ships with Calculated Time of Arrival prior to that day’s Master Queuing List time.

New queuing plan rapidly adopted

The new queuing system was designed to sharply reduce the number of container vessels waiting just offshore of Los Angeles/Long Beach, with the stated goal of cutting harmful emissions and enhancing safety during the winter months by spacing out the ships.

A more cynical view has emerged: that an unstated goal is to erase a politically nettlesome photo op — attention-grabbing imagery of idle container ships stretching off into the distance.

The new plan is entirely voluntary and encourages ships to operate outside of a Safety and Air Quality Area (SAQA) that extends 150 miles to the west of the ports and 50 miles to the north and south. Ships do not have to ask for permission to enter the SAQA and are encouraged to enter the SAQA if they need to refuel, have safety concerns or have a berth assignment within 72 hours. By year-end, the hope is to reduce the number of ships at the anchorages from a max of 55 down to 25-35 and to cut the number of ships loitering in the SAQA to near zero.

For the past 100 years, container ships have been placed in the LA/LB queue when they hit the 20-mile line from the ports. But given historic bottlenecks on land in 2021, this first-come, first-served protocol bunched up an unprecedented number of ships in a small area.

Under the new system, participating container ships are given a Calculated Time of Arrival (CTA) by the Pacific Maritime Monitoring System (PacMMS) after leaving their last port of call, whether it’s Shanghai or Oakland. They can then save on fuel by slow steaming toward LA/LB, knowing their spot in line is reserved based on their CTA, and wait outside the SAQA.

Ocean carriers have readily accepted the new protocol. There were already 109 container ships enrolled in the PacMMS as of Monday. With each passing day, more container ships arrive from Asia and putter around further away from LA/LB. There are now ships bound for LA/LB in holding patterns south of Ensenada, Mexico, north of San Francisco and over 400 miles out into the Pacific.

Ships enrolled in the PacMMS as of Monday and their locations. Map: Marine Exchange of Southern California

Landside problems keep offshore waits high

The new queuing protocol complicates historical comparisons on the scope of the Southern California container-ship traffic jam.

The best apples-to-apples approximation is to take the number of ships at anchor and loitering in legacy holding areas within 40 miles of the ports, as reported by the Marine Exchange, then add in the number of ships that have a CTA before the date and time that the Marine Exchange’s daily Master Queuing List was generated.

In other words, add back the ships that hypothetically would have been waiting just offshore of LA/LB, had they not intentionally slowed down or opted to wait elsewhere along the Pacific coastline.

On Tuesday, there were 36 container ships at anchor and 25 loitering within 40 miles (the loitering total is half what it was the week before). However, there were an additional 32 container ships with CTAs prior to the time of Tuesday’s Master Queueing List report, bringing the “virtual” total to a record 93.

The numbers confirm how rapidly the new queuing plan is being accepted and also underscore that the offshore traffic jam is still not improving.

Because of the logistics snarl on land — at the terminals, with the trucks, the rail and the warehouses — the wait time to get from anchorage to a berth in Los Angeles is still rising. As of Tuesday, wait time hit yet another all-time high: 18.6 days.

Chart: American Shipper based on data from the Port of Los Angeles, Port Optimizer: Note: Average is 30-day moving average