West Coast ports lost 1 million TEU as imports shifted east Ship’s crew

According to a new report by the Descartes Systems Group, more than a million TEU import containers were shifted from ports on the US West Coast each year. Gulf Coast ports have been the biggest beneficiaries of this eastward shift in import volume.

According to the report, imports from Asia drove volume growth at Gulf Coast ports, with China being the strongest at over 68,127 TEUs. At the same time, however, there was a smaller shift away from northern European container imports. The Gulf ports have seen an influx of goods such as electronics, furniture and machinery typically associated with Asian manufacturers.

“The protracted ILWU-PMA contract negotiations have put shifts in container import volumes from West Coast ports back to the fore,” said Chris Jones, EVP Industry at Descartes. “Descartes’ Global Shipping Report sheds light on how much volume has shifted from West Coast ports, where it has gone, and which countries of origin and key commodities it has left.”

Source: Descartes Datamyne™

Descartes analyzed US container import volume (TEU) in the first three months of 2019 compared to the first three months of 2023 to provide insights into the shift away from West Coast ports. The total volume of US import containers tends to be extremely close in the first three months of both years, which Descartes says makes for a reasonable comparison.

If you compare the first quarter of 2023 with 2019, you can clearly see that there has been a significant shift.

According to the report, container outflows on the West Coast are fairly close to container inflows on the East and Gulf Coasts. Descartes’ report extrapolated Q1 data over 12 months to calculate that as of 2021 over a million TEU containers were being towed annually from West Coast ports on Long Beach.

With import volumes changing, it is important for companies to be aware of the changing trends and adjust their strategies accordingly. With no end in sight to the protracted West Coast labor talks, anyone can guess when or if West Coast ports will regain their share of the imports lost during the pandemic.

“Changing trade routes is not a trivial matter; However, the magnitude of the volume shift that has occurred in a short time frame during the pandemic is a testament to the ingenuity of logistics professionals,” Descartes said in his report. “As many factors such as the pandemic and ILWU treaty negotiations take their course, and improvements to ports and infrastructure reduce congestion, it will be interesting to see how much volume returns to West Coast ports or remains elsewhere.”

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