Port traffic plunges further

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Imports into the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports plunged even deeper into a recessionary hole in February, hitting lows not seen since 1997.

With exports also sharply lower, the sluggish traffic at the nation’s biggest cargo container complex is yet another symptom of the broad malaise that continues to grip world economies. In Southern California, the trade gateway supports more than 280,000 workers, and its slowdown is being felt across the region.

But early signals suggest that the declines might be bottoming out. Day-shift employment levels at West Coast seaports in March are running only slightly below the year-earlier pace.


Still, experts warn that the picture is far from good and contains no hint of a serious recovery.

“Most of the trade numbers coming out of Asia are still pretty extreme in terms of the speed of decline,” said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist for business research firm IHS Global Insight. “It’s been rather unprecedented.”

“We will see some bottoming out,” Gault said. “We can’t go down much longer or there will be no trade left.”

At the Port of Los Angeles, the number of containers carrying imported goods fell in February by 35.3% to 206,035 containers. That was down from 318,445 containers during the same month in 2008, and it marked the lowest monthly total for imports since May 2001. Exports declined 27.6% to 111,595 containers from 154,127 in February 2008.

The Port of Long Beach saw an even steeper decline, in part because the low volumes meant that shipping lines were reverting to small vessels and no longer had as much need for Long Beach’s naturally deep harbor. February imports dropped by 43.3% to 92,781 containers from 147,275 a year earlier. That is the lowest monthly total for imports at the port since November 1997. Exports were down 37% to 92,781 containers from 147,275.

In January, imports fell 7.3% at the Los Angeles port and 23.3% at Long Beach. Exports declined 29.4% at Los Angeles and 27.3% at Long Beach.


“Hopefully, we will see some kind of upswing in the month of March, but there’s just not enough confidence out there for people to start buying again,” said Dick Steinke, the Long Beach port’s executive director.

Los Angeles port Marketing Director Mike DiBernardo said the declining traffic wasn’t the result of increased fees for such things as extended terminal hours and an ambitious clean-trucks program.

“If you move cargo at our port at night and with a 2007 emissions complaint, there is no extra fee,” DiBernardo said.

“We are optimistic that it will turn around at some point. We just don’t know when,” he said.

The Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are working separately on programs to reduce fees for new business.One positive sign might be their workforce numbers.

The ports needed an average of 672 dockworkers on the day shift to load and unload ships for the first 18 days in March, according to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents West Coast shipping lines and terminal operators. That was about 5% below the average 709 workers needed each day during the same period in 2008.


The decline in the average number of dockworkers has lessened compared with recent months. In February, for instance, the average number of dockworkers needed on the day shift fell about 10% from February 2008.

The pattern is similar at other West Coast ports, including Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma.

That could be a sign that U.S. consumers are a little less leery of reaching into their wallets and an indication that retailers may have finally slashed factory orders deep enough to have begun to reduce their inventories.

Gault of IHS Global Insight wasn’t ready to celebrate, however, predicting that trade would remain depressed for most of 2009.