In mid-September 2020, the 15,072 TEU CMA CGM Brazil made her way down the Canadian and US east coasts, calling calls at the ports of Halifax, New York/New Jersey, Norfolk, Savannah and Charleston before heading back to resume her rotation.


The vessel is part of CMA CGM’s South Asia-to-USEC service (via the Suez Canal), and the company is increasing capacity on that service. Nineteen vessels ranging in size from 9,300 TEUs to more than 15,000 TEUs operate in the service.


Not only does this voyage represent the number of seaports along North America’s east and gulf coasts that can now receive some of the post-Panamax containerships that frequent the Asian waters, but it also indicates how the east coast can now receive cargo that used to the only enter at gateways on the west coast. These points are critical in Asia-American trade and important in particularly meeting e-commerce needs for companies like Amazon and Walmart, which look to the large ships for faster and cheaper cargo transport.


While Covid-19 and ongoing tariff wars have slowed trade between China and North America, east coast ports continue to demonstrate their ability to handle new post-Panamax ships, which are those capable of handling 15,000+ TEUs. Such ships frequently call at major seaports around the world. By comparison, the Port of Oakland received the 19,000-TEU MSC Anna in April as the ship called on the port to pick up empty containers; it was not on a regular rotation.


Later this past summer, however, east coast ports are showing an increase in container traffic – the result of pent up demand and peak season shipments. The Port of New York/New Jersey saw July volumes increase 19% to 607,463 TEUs over June. Officials indicate, however, that volumes were still 8.4% lower for the year.


The Port of Virginia saw August volumes increase to 247,349 TEUs, a 12% increase over July totals, which Joe Harris, spokesman for the Virginia Port Authority, attributes to growing volumes in the Asia-China trade lane. But in a year-on-year comparison, August volume was off by more than 10,327 TEUs when compared with August 2019.

“We’re expecting September’s volume to be better that August’s,” he says.


Harris emphasizes that going forward, China is going to continue to be an important trading partner for the Port of Virginia. “We have many cargo owners moving goods in this trade lane, and we must be attentive to their needs to ensure efficient access to both the export and import markets.”


For now, he adds, trade, in the general sense, is very fluid. “Ocean carriers and cargo owners are assessing options and fallback positions to help ensure stability and the predictable flow of cargo,” Harris says.


“Our goal is to collaborate with our customers, stakeholders and partners to meet their needs to ensure trade moves over this port because we are most efficient, economical and viable option, regardless of the origin or destination of the cargo.”


The South Carolina Ports Authority (SCPA) finished FY 2020 with relatively steady volumes compared to FY 2019, despite impacts from the global pandemic. The first seven months of the fiscal year – from July through January – were extraordinarily strong.


Confident that the port will weather this uncertainty, port officials are encouraged by signs of an initial rebound in container and automotive volumes, as well as an increase in imports and a decline in blanked sailings. In mid-August, SCPA president and CEO Jim Newsome reported that although exports and imports were down overall, South Carolina ports saw an uptick in Asian imports in July, pointing to a positive economic trend.


The Georgia Ports Authority reported that its Port of Savannah handled 4.44 million TEUs in FY 2020, down less than 1% compared to FY 2019. Despite Covid-19 disruptions, total tons crossing all GPA docks reached a record 37.77 million, up 0.6%, or 223,000 tons.


Container tons grew 2% (560,440 tons) to reach 33.5 million tons for the year, another record.


“Cargo volume reductions related to Covid-19 were offset by the strength of our export markets and record volumes earlier in the year,” says Griff Lynch, GPA’s executive director.


“What sets Savannah apart from the competition is the sheer capacity of the port’s ever-expanding footprint, on and off the terminal,” said Will McKnight, GPA’s board chairman. “We have nearly unlimited potential and capacity to grow our business.”


In the Gulf of Mexico, Port Houston, the largest container port on the United States Gulf Coast, has also been impacted by the coronavirus. In July, TEUs were down 10%, while in the first seven months of the year TEUs were down just 3% compared to 2019, which was a record year.


Helping to move cargo is the Barbours Cut Container Terminal, which processed more than 4,000 transactions each day in July. Port Houston recently received five extra loaders in to handle peak trans-Pacific volumes. Blank sailings also appear to be decreasing.


Improvements at the Port of Mobile by the Alabama State Port Authority are making it possible for that Gulf seaport to be big-ship ready. Completed earlier this year is the 400-foot container dock extension at the APM Terminals Mobile facility, which now enables two 8,000-10,000 TEU ships to be handled simultaneously. The terminal has two super-post-Panamax and two post-Panamax ship-to-shore gantry cranes.


Channel and harbor improvements are expected to begin later this year and include dredging the port’s navigation channel to a depth of 50 feet.


The Port of New Orleans’s (Port NOLA) cargo and rail operations have continued unabated during the pandemic. In April, Evergreen Shipping launched its new weekly container service to and from the Caribbean and Port NOLA; the additional capacity will support Port NOLA’s growing export business for commodities such as resin, poultry, forestry and agricultural products.


By Karen E. Thuermer

Correspondent | Washington