Federal Maritime Commissioner officials are moving forward with an investigation into port congestion in California. The focus of the investigation is related to detention and demurrage practices of ocean carriers and marine terminal operators. Issues with congestion and lack of available cargo carriers have been problematic for a number of months now. Shipping delays have been particularly troublesome for agricultural producers looking to get their products to the export market.
“There’s been movement from the Federal Maritime Commissioner. They’re definitely taking a deeper dive into investigating what the shipping companies are doing but it’s very bureaucratic,” said Roger Isom, President and CEO of the Western Agricultural Processors Association (WAPA). “They’re telling us it’s going to take weeks before any answers come back. We don’t have weeks. This thing has been going on for months.”
The overall issue with port congestion has slowly been improving. The number of ships anchored outside of California ports has come down slightly but is still substantially above average. One carrier is now coming to the Port of Oakland directly, which should help with port access for some ag exporters. However, the relative improvements to turnaround time at the Oakland port continue to be hampered by COVID restrictions and the construction of new cranes.
“Those turnaround times right now are just dragging on. COVID has definitely had an impact at the port,” Isom noted. “We’ve got to get those guys back to fully staffed, get these COVID restrictions down to where we can have full crews working full-time, and get these exports out. We’re dying here.”
For months agricultural exporters have struggled to obtain shipping containers to send their products overseas. Empty containers have been fetching a premium in Southeast Asia, further compounding the problem with port congestion. Last month a group of more than 70 agriculture, food, and transport groups which included WAPA sent a letter to President Joe Biden regarding the issue. “You’re going to see more complaints, more concerns, and you’re going to see some real economic harm if this thing doesn’t get resolved in the next month,” Isom explained.