The West Coast was the destination of choice for Asian exports in early 2021, before queues of container ships brought Southern California ports to a standstill.

Less than two years later, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction.

Volumes were diverted through the Panama Canal amid fears of West Coast labor disputes and peak-season congestion in California that never materialized. East Coast and Gulf Coast ports now boast far greater imports than West Coast ports.

Best month for East Coast and Gulf of Mexico ports

Data from the McCown Container Volume Observer released Thursday backs that up US imports remain near historic highs. Imports at the top 10 ports totaled 2,165,939 TFE in August, the fifth-highest monthly volume on record. August was flat year-on-year (y/y) and up 3% compared to July.

The share of West Coast ports in the total decreased to 45%. That’s a nine-point swing from February 2021, when the West Coast boasted a 54% share. According to John McCown, author of the Container Volume Observer, this is the lowest share of West Coast ports in US imports “since at least the early 1980s.”

(Chart: McCown Container Volume Observer)

Imports to major West Coast ports totaled 978,844 TFE in August, down 11.5% year-over-year, and down 17% at the Port of Los Angeles (due in part to cargo shifting to Long Beach due to union trouble at one of the Los Angeles terminals).

Imports to leading Eastern and Gulf Coast ports totaled 1,187,095 TEU last month, up 12% YoY. Those ports are “explosive month with the largest volumes in history,” McCown said.

The increase in imports was determined Savannah, Georgia (growth by 20.4% y/y), Houston (up 12.7%), Norfolk, Virginia (up 11.4%) and New York/New Jersey (up 10.5%).

To analyze the shoreline shift over time, McCown looked at the three-month average of the y/y change along the shoreline. These data show that the latest shift to the East Coast and Gulf Coast began in the second quarter of 2021. Growth relative to the West Coast remained strong throughout 2022. As of August, the three-month y/y change for the West Coast was minus-5 .1% compared to plus-8.5% for East/Gulf Coast ports.

chart showing trends for West Coast vs. East/Gulf Coast ports
(Chart: McCown Container Volume Observer)

Easing of queues at the port

Including all three coasts, just over 150 container ships were waiting off North America in January – mostly off the West Coast – and the same number at the end of Julythis time mostly off the east coast and gulf coast.

The longest line in recent months was outside Savannah, Georgia. in a few days more than 40 container ships are waiting. Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Griff Lynch said on Sept. 13 that the number of ships waiting will “decline” over the next six weeks.

On Thursday morning, American Shipper reviewed the vessel’s location data from MarineTraffic and official California dock lists. The survey showed that the total North American backlog fell to 116 ships, down 22% from the peak at the end of July.

Savannah was down from its peak but still had the longest queue with 29 ships waiting. The situation in Houston has not improved: 23 container ships are still at the shore. Another recent hotspot, New York/New Jersey, was down to 13 ships Thursday morning; it was recently in the 20s. Meanwhile, the line off Virginia, made up of ships waiting to go to Norfolk or Baltimore, has grown to 13 ships.

Overall, only 24% of the ships waiting were off the West Coast on Thursday morning, highlighting the extent to which carriers have moved to other coasts.

Click to see other articles by Greg Miller

For the past month (through Tuesday), customs data shows that US containerized imports actually increased year-over-year in 2021 (Chart: FreightWaves SONAR)

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