West Coast Trade Report January 2024

Download the full report PDF here.

December 2023 – Partial Tallies

We note that the National Retail Federation’s collaboration with Global Port Tracker (NRF/GPT) yielded a January 7 press release stating that the thirteen major U.S. ports it monitors would see the arrival of 1.93 million TEUs in December. That, according to NRF/GPT metrics, would represent a 11.5% year-over-year jump in containerized import traffic.

But here’s what we know from our sources about how things went in December down along the waterfront.

As usual, we start in Southern California, where the nation’s two busiest container ports announced huge year-over-year increases in December, albeit over a relatively slow month for inbound loads last year.

The Port of Los Angeles posted a 3.58% year-over-year gain in inbound loads to 364,661 in December. Still, that was down 2.4% from December 2019. YTD, inbound loads (4,446,147) were down 5.7% from 2019. Outbound loads in December (121,575) jumped by 26.0% from a year earlier but were nonetheless 6.6% below December 2019. For the year, outbound loads (1,291,997) were down 26.4% from 2019. Total container traffic through the port in 2023 (8,629,681) was down by 7.6% from 2019.  

Next door at the Port of Long Beach, inbound loads in December (333,329) surged by 37.9% over the previous December and exceeded December 2019’s volume by 3.1%. Inbound loads YTD (3,804,356) topped the number of inbound loads in 2019 by 1.2%. Outbound loads in December (103,688) were down 10.4% from a year earlier and off by 17.3% from December 2019. Total container traffic through the port in 2023 (8,018,668) was up by 5.1% from 2019.

Together, the two San Pedro Bay ports handled 16,648,349 loads and empties in 2023, 1.9% below the total volume the ports handled in 2019. Inbound loads (8,250,503) in 2023 were down 2.6% from 2019, while outbound loads were off by 20.3%.     

At the Port of Oakland, inbound loads (76,347) in December were up 16.4% y/y but still 6.1% below December of 2019. YTD, inbound loads (838,231) were down 14.0% from 2019. Meanwhile, outbound loads in December (65,801) rose 12.9% y/y but were down 11.8% from the last month of 2019. On a YTD basis, outbound loads (736,213) were down 20.9% from 2019. Total container traffic through the Northern California port in 2023 (2,065,709) was down 17.4% from 2019.

Up in Washington State, the Northwest Seaport Alliance Ports (Tacoma and Seattle) saw year-over-year increases in their December container volumes. Inbound loads (88,101) were up 3.4% from a year earlier, while outbound loads soared by 44.6% to 67,622. Even so, the ports finished the year well shy of their 2019 numbers. December’s inbound loads were down 16.7% from December 2019, while the 1,078,005 inbound loads that came through the ports in all of 2023 were fewer by 21.3% than 2019’s volume. Similarly, outbound loads in December were down 10.9% from the same month in 2019, while the 588,744 outbound loads shipped this year were off 35.5% from 2019.   

Collectively, the seven USWC ports we monitor handled 10,359,807 inbound loads in 2023. Outbound loads meanwhile totaled 3,931,983 for the year. Compared to pre-pandemic 2019, those annual totals were down 5.42% and 22.8%, respectively.

Across the border at British Columbia’s Port of Vancouver, inbound loads in December (144,504) were up 2.8% over December 2019. However, outbound loads (70,649) were down 18.7% from that last month of 2019. For the entire year, total container traffic (3,125,559) at Canada’s largest container port was 8.0% below the volume the port handled in 2019.

The Port of Prince Rupert continues to see declining container volumes in December. Inbound loads (32,217) were down y/y by 25.2% and by 47.9% from the last month of 2019. For the entire year, inbound loads (322,170) were 45.6% below 2019. Outbound loads (12,123) in December slipped lower by 1.2% year-over-year but were down 30.1% from December 2019. The port’s traffic in outbound loads in 2023 trailed 2019 by 34.8%. Total container trade in 2023 (704,248) was down 41.8% from 2019.

Back East, while the Port of New York/New Jersey takes a leisurely approach to posting its latest month’s cargo numbers, the Port of Virginia reported 121,630 inbound loads in December, a 3.3% fall-off from a year earlier but a 17.3% increase over December 2019. For the year, inbound loads (1,525,900) were down 11.7% year-over-year but up 11.7% from December 2019. Outbound loads this December (91,758) were up 1.0% from a year earlier but up 17.2% over December 2019. For all of 2023, outbound loads totaled 1,101,620, a 14.0% gain over 2019. Total container traffic through the port this year (3,287,546) represented an increase of 11.9% over 2019.   

Further south, the Port of Charleston saw a flattening of its overall container traffic. To be sure, December brought 103,556 inbound loads, a 26.6% bump over December 2019. That also gave the South Carolina maritime gateway a full year total of 1,220,384 inbound loads, 14.4% more than the annual volume in inbound loads it had handled in 2019. But outbound traffic was off both y/y and from 2019. So, despite the hubbub about rising container volumes through ports in the Southeastern quadrant of the nation, total traffic of loads and empties (2,482,080) in 2023 was just 1.9% higher than the 2,436,185 the port handled in 2019.

As we go to print, the Georgia Ports Authority has yet to post December’s TEU tallies for the Port of Savannah.

For the Record: November 2023 TEU Numbers

Exhibits 1-3 provide the details on inbound and outbound loads as well as total container traffic (loads plus empties) through the twenty-one North American ports this newsletter surveys. All of the container numbers are in TEUs.

Exhibit 1

Port November 2023 November 2022 November 2021 November 2020 November 2019 Y/Y Change Change from 2019
Los Angeles 384,619 307,080 403,444 464,820 371,350 25.3% 3.6%
Long Beach 355,339 259,442 362,394 382,677 293,287 37.0% 21.2%
San Pedro Bay Total 739,958 566,522 765,838 847,497 664,637 30.6% 11.3%
Oakland 71,258 68,646 83,097 78,048 77,367 3.8% -7.9%
NWSA 87,295 86,708 59,341 72,746 94,978 0.7% -8.1%
Hueneme 9,886 10,820 9,882 5,276 4,725 -8.6% 109.2%
San Diego 5,668 6,004 6,062 7,106 5,772 -5.6% -1.8%
USWC Total 914,065 738,700 924,220 1,010,673 847,479 23.7% 7.9%
Boston 11,636 9,892 5,883 10,461 11,538 17.6% 0.8%
NYNJ 324,559 349,658 382,074 382,912 301,123 -7.2% 7.8%
Philadelphia 30,422 28,020 30,096 24,667 19,093 8.6% 59.3%
Maryland 42,676 42,058 36,154 47,148 38,915 1.5% 9.7%
Virginia 128,419 123,179 141,617 125,214 103,410 1.0% 24.2%
South Carolina 98,115 99,380 127,081 93,369 82,785 -1.3% 18.5%
Georgia 211,056 219,089 236,991 234,583 173,863 -3.7% 21.4%
Jaxport 26,186 27,694 24,469 27,027 27,390 -5.4% -4.4%
Port Everglades 26,279 27,560 34,238 26,280 26,959 -4.6% -2.5%
Miami 42,851 43,593 37,943 45,816 37,763 -1.7% 13.5%
USEC Total 942,199 970,123 1,056,546 1,017,477 822,839 -2.9% 14.5%
New Orleans 9,876 7,799 9,361 10,915 10,155 26.6% -2.7%
Houston 137,631 164,619 152,508 122,475 101,494 -16.4% 35.6%
USGC 147,507 172,418 161,869 133,390 111,649 -14.4% 32.1%
Vancouver 147,684 139,767 125,215 162,436 123,918 5.7% 19.2%
Prince Rupert 31,328 37,030 34,423 51,272 58,181 -15.4% -46.2%
British Columbia Total 179,012 176,797 159,638 213,708 182,099 1.3% -1.7%
U.S. Totals 2,003,771 1,881,241 2,142,635 2,161,540 1,781,967 6.5% 12.4%

Exhibit 1 shows that the nineteen U.S. ports we survey report having handled 2,003,771 inbound loads in November, up 6.5% from a year earlier. That figure also represented a 12.4% gain over the 1,781,967 inbound loads the same ports had handled in pre-pandemic November 2019. The seven U.S. West Coast container ports from San Diego to Seattle that we track reported a sharp 23.7% year-over-year jump in inbound loads in November. At the ten Atlantic Coast ports we surveyed, inbound loads in November were down 2.9% from a year earlier, while inbound loads at the two Gulf Coast ports that make their monthly TEU tallies publicly available were off by 14.4% from the previous November.

Comparing this November with the same month four years earlier, inbound loads through U.S. West Coast ports were up 7.9%, while U.S. East Coast ports recorded a 14.5% increase. The two U.S. Gulf Coast ports we follow registered a 32.1% rise in inbound loads over November 2019. 

Looking at coastal shares of the inbound trade, 45.6% of November’s crop of 2,003,771 inbound loads were discharged at U.S. West Coast ports, a considerable bump from their 39.3% share a year earlier. U.S. East Coast ports meanwhile worked 47.0% of the nation’s inbound loads in November, down from a 51.6% share the previous November. Our two U.S. Gulf Coast ports Inbound loads at two Gulf Coast ports held a 7.4% share of all inbound loads in November, down from their 9.2% share a year earlier but up from a 6.3% share of November 2019’s inbound loads. 

Although we survey four more ports than the National Retail Federation’s Global Port Tracker does, our numbers normally are roughly consistent with theirs. In a January 8 press release, the NRF/GPT reported that November had seen the arrival of 1.89 million TEUs of inbound loads at the thirteen U.S. seaports it monitors. Our tally for November, based on what the ports have reported, shows those same thirteen ports reporting 1,893,607 inbound loads in November.

Exhibit 2 reveals that 980,7713 outbound loads left U.S. ports in November, a year-over-year gain of just 1.8% and a decline of 9.5% from the 1,083,875 outbound loads U.S. ports shipped in November 2019. U.S. East Coast ports accounted for 51.9% of all outbound loads this past November against a 34.3% share for U.S. West Coast ports and an 11.8% share for Gulf Coast ports.  

Container Contents Weights and Values

The figures in Exhibits 4 and 5 represent the USWC shares of the nation’s box trade at mainland U.S. ports. We have tweaked the exhibits to provide a broader historical context by showing how the numbers this November compared with the same month a year earlier as well as in pre-pandemic November 2019 and a decade earlier in November 2013.  

Other than the Port of Oakland, the major U.S. West Coast ports saw improvements in their shares of the nation’s containerized export tonnage. Compared with November 2019, the share of import tonnage passing through the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach was almost identical to their pre-pandemic share.  

As Exhibit 5 shows, the Ports of LA and Long Beach handled slightly higher shares of the nation’s containerized import and export tonnage in November than the two ports had handled in November 2019.

Exhibit 6 and Exhibit 7 track overall USWC inbound and outbound shares through the last thirteen months.

Anything Sound Familiar?

“A severe drought in Panama has resulted in lower water levels in the Panama Canal, forcing some shippers to limit the amount of cargo their largest ships carry so they can safely navigate the waterway.”

That’s what The New York Times reported under the headline “What Panama’s Worst Drought Means for Its Canal’s Future” … nearly five years ago, on May 17, 2019.

Fourth Coast Traffic

According to a report in Progressive Farmer, a new record was set when the Nordika Desgagnes, a Canadian-flagged ocean-going vessel (known thereabouts as a “saltie”) sailed out of the Port of Duluth on December 29. That made it the latest departing vessel to leave the Lake Superior marine terminal before the St. Lawrence Seaway iced up for the winter.

“Combined with the earliest oceangoing arrival in port history — the Federal Dart arrived March 28, 2023 — the Nordika Desgagnes departure on Dec. 29 will make this navigation season Duluth-Superior’s longest ever for international traffic (277 days),” noted Jayson Hron, director of communication and marketing, Duluth Seaway Port Authority, in a press release.

The ship left just in time. In November, St. Lawrence Seaway management approved its latest seasonal closure ever, Jan. 5, 2024. One year earlier, it had been touch-and-go for a saltie that had departed Duluth on December 22 just as a fierce winter storm slowed the ship’s progress and fears arose that it would be stranded. Fortunately, conditions eased up, and the vessel was able to deliver its cargo of durum wheat to Bari, Italy. (Ponder that provenance the next time you’re buying “genuine” Italian-made pasta.)

Alfalfa and Hay Exports

We suppose there are people who know the difference between alfalfa and hay. We are not among them. However, the distinction (if any) came to mind while we were reading a recent New York Times article about how Southwestern states like Arizona are adapting to record-high summer temperatures and record-low water supplies. (Last summer, daytime highs reached or exceeded 110 degrees Fahrenheit for 31 straight days in Phoenix, the country’s fifth most populous city.)  

One step has been to reduce water allocations to farmers growing forage crops used chiefly to feed livestock and, to some lesser extent, thoroughbred horses owned by wealthy racehorse breeders in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia banned growing alfalfa and other green fodder crops within its own borders in 2018 in a bid to relieve pressure on the kingdom’s water resources.

The Times cited research published in Nature Sustainability claiming that “70 percent of the water used by farmers to irrigate crops goes to growers of alfalfa, hay, corn silage, and other grasses that are used to fatten up cattle for beef and cows for dairy”.

Arizona is moving to terminate a lease held by Saudi-owned Fondomonte Arizona, a major grower of alfalfa. Arizona has been charging the company $25 per acre for its lease on state land. Like other companies that lease state land in Arizona, Fondomonte can pump unlimited amounts of water from wells at no cost.

Fondomonte is a subsidiary of the Saudi dairy company Almarai, which also grows alfalfa on 3,375 acres of farmland near Blythe, where it pays the Palo Verde Irrigation District a flat rate for Colorado River water to irrigate its alfalfa fields, according to an October 5 report in the Los Angeles Times.

A legal confrontation between the State of Arizona and the company is likely to ensue, with major implications not just for foreign companies with investments in America’s natural resources but also for the future of agriculture as drought intensifies in the Southwest and cities clamor for rural water reserves.

The Fondomonte controversy is a bit odd, given that over three-quarters of U.S. alfalfa exports go to China, Japan, and South Korea. Last year (that would be 2023 for those slow to turn the pages of the calendar), Saudi Arabia accounted for a 12.5% share of export tonnage.  However, a cluster of other Middle Eastern countries (Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait, and Jordan) held a 6.5% share.

As Exhibit 9 makes manifest, nearly all of America’s containerized exports of forage products (by tonnage) moves out through U.S. West Coast seaports, with the San Pedro Bay ports contesting the trade with the ports of the Northwest Seaport Alliance. Through November of 2023, the two port complexes handling 84.6% of all export tonnage. The Ports of Oakland and Portland (Oregon) currently handle nearly 15% of the export tonnage.  

Finally, The Metacarcinus Magister May Be Getting Its Due

Existing California law designates, among other things, the golden poppy as the official state flower, the California redwood as the official state tree, and the California gray whale as the official state marine mammal. Now, a new bill (Assembly Bill 1797) introduced on January 4 in the State Legislature would establish the Dungeness crab (Metacarcinus Magister) as the official state crustacean.

It’s hard to think how this new honor would affect the public image of something as iconic as the Dungeness crab. It is already Oregon’s state crustacean, and it is annually feted at the Dungeness Crab and Seafood Festival in Port Angeles, Washington. For the record, the crab’s name comes from the Dungeness Spit, which shelters Dungeness Bay in the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge up in Washington State.

We’ll wait to see if the new bill merits any commentary from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. For the last five years, the agency has been routinely delaying the start of the commercial harvesting season beyond its historical start on November 15 to protect humpback whales from becoming entangled in fishing gear during their winter migration along the California coast. During the 2015-2016 season, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the state agency on behalf of the whales. That led to a 2019 settlement which has since pushed the effective date of harvesting in California waters past the holidays.  

As a result, Californians looking to feature Dungeness crabs on their dinner tables between Thanksgiving and New Year’s must be content with buying months-old frozen crabs or expensive fresh crabs imported from Oregon and Washington State.

Even for a legislative body that has displayed a unique talent for exploiting seemingly mundane issues for partisan advantage, we don’t expect the folks at the State Capitol to get too steamed up about AB 1797. We could be wrong, though.