April 5, 2021

Cargo-container shortage puts squeeze on supply chain

A huge surge in cargo volumes heading from Asia to the U.S. is wreaking havoc on global trade, and exporters in Washington and other parts of the U.S. are feeling the pain.

With folks sheltering at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, online spending on everything from fitness gear to refrigerators has gone through the roof. That’s translated to unprecedented volumes in imports from Asia.

The spike has overwhelmed some West Coast ports, particularly in Los Angeles where bottlenecks are creating delays for exporters in Tacoma and Seattle waiting to load and ship products.

More profit in Adidas than apples

A big demand for Asian imports means shipping companies make can make a lot more money sending empty containers eastbound as soon as possible rather than filling them with less profitable exports, such as Washington State produce and other farm products. Cargo ships that would normally head to the Pacific Northwest after unloading in Southern California are now skipping stops in Tacoma and Seattle. In January 2021, vessel calls were down nearly 20% from the same time last year.

For Washington State farmers, fewer cargo ships docking in Tacoma and Seattle translates to stockpiled product and lost sales—despite the fact that foreign markets are eager to buy U.S. farm goods.

The Northwest Seaport Alliance, managed by the Ports of Tacoma and Seattle, is working to attract some of the cargo jammed up in California to keep supply chains moving and customers served.


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