Why a record number of container ships are chilling off the California coast

Container ships anchored and adrift at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Sept. 16, 2021.
Container ships anchored and adrift at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Sept. 16, 2021.
Image: Capt. Kip Louttig / Marine Exchange of Southern California
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As retailers gear up for the holiday season, a record number of container ships trying to bring imported goods into the US are stuck off the coast of California, another casualty of ongoing disruptions to the global supply chain.

Sixty-five vessels were waiting to dock at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in the San Pedro Bay Sept. 16, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California, a record high. Captain Kip Louttit of the Marine Exchange told Quartz that an unprecedented 23 of these ships are in a drift area—meaning there is no room for them to anchor in the water.

The queue of container ships waiting in the bay has been rising steadily throughout the week, reaching new highs each day. AS SERAFINA, which arrived in Long Beach on Aug. 25, has been there the longest, according to Louttit. The ship, which arrived from Shanghai, appears to be delivering goods to companies including Samsung C&T America, according to the website Marine Traffic.

How is the shipping industry handling the end of lockdowns?

Shipping companies have been dealing with the impact of supply chain disruptions since March of last year, when consumer demand slowed due to pandemic lockdowns and ocean liners were taken offline as manufacturers shut down. The shipping industry still hasn’t caught up with the surge in demand from reopened economies.

With the holiday season approaching US imports are on the rise, creating logjams at major ports around the country. A recent Bloomberg analysis found that the number of container vessels waiting to enter the top three US ports has been steadily rising since July.

What’s more, warehouses are increasingly full, with the volume of cargo piling up due to supply chain bottlenecks. While there is about 2 billion square feet of warehouse space in Southern California, Gene Seroka, executive director at the Port of Los Angeles, told Bloomberg on June 30 that these warehouses were “overflowing.” There often isn’t enough space for container ships to unload deliveries even when they do finally dock.

“All parts of the supply chain have been kind of stacked up,” he added.

What does this container ship pileup mean for you? In a Sept. 16 CNBC interview, Seroka echoed the message that many retailers have been sending to customers over the past few weeks: get your holiday shopping done early, and plan for delays.