harbor crane
Photo by John Schreiber.

Figures released Tuesday show the coronavirus outbreak took a heavy toll on cargo volumes at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports in February, and a port official said declines are expected to continue in March.

The Port of L.A. moved 544,037 Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in February, a 22.9% decrease compared to last year.

“While cargo volumes are important, the coronavirus is first and foremost a public health crisis that needs to be brought under control with the collaboration of governments and medical experts from around the world,” said Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka. “We are more interconnected than ever with our global partners so it’s no surprise that Trans-Pacific maritime trade has been significantly impacted.”

Don’t expect the situation to improve any time soon, he said.

“As factory production in China remains at low levels, we expect soft volumes in March. Looking ahead to anticipated manufacturing improvements, we will need to return empty containers to Asia and push lingering U.S. export boxes out swiftly,” Seroka said. “We’re actively working with our supply chain partners to be prepared for a cargo surge once production levels ramp up.”

According to the L.A. port’s latest figures, February imports decreased 22.5% to 270,025 TEUs compared to the previous year. Exports decreased 5.7% to 134,468 TEUs, and empty containers declined 35% to 139,544 TEUs.

In total, February volumes, also adversely impacted by the Lunar New Year holiday celebrated in Asia, numbered 544,037 TEUs at the Port of Los Angeles. For the first two months of 2020, container volumes totaled 1,350,181 TEUs, down 13% compared to last year.

At the Port of Long Beach, cargo volume also declined due to fewer ship calls amid the coronavirus outbreak and lingering effects of the trade dispute with China, according to Mario Cordero, the port’s executive director.

Terminal operators and dockworkers moved 538,428 TEUs last month, down 9.8% compared to February 2019. Imports dropped 17.9% to 248,592 TEUs, while exports increased 19.3% to 125,559 TEUs. Empty containers sent overseas decreased 12.8% to 164,277 TEUs.

Port of Long Beach officials noted that although a Phase 1 preliminary trade agreement was signed in January by the United States and China, about $370 billion in Chinese goods remain under the increased tariffs.

Cordero said the coronavirus has caused further disruption to the supply chain with an increase in canceled sailings and a reduction in cargo moving through the nation’s second-busiest port.

“With the extended factory closures and slowdown of goods movement in China and other Asian countries in February due to Lunar New Year and COVID-19, we are seeing shipping lines needing to cancel some sailings,” Cordero said. “Once the virus is contained, we may see a surge of cargo, and our terminals, labor and supply chain will be ready to handle it.

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