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The United States imports historic quantities of goods from abroad, which has brought the US trade deficit to record levels. Greg Rosalsky of our Planet Money podcast reports that the shipping industry is struggling to deal with all of this.
GREG ROSALSKY, BYLINE: Gigantic ships filled with cargo create massive traffic jam on the water. In San Francisco Bay it got so bad that the US Coast Guard basically told the ships, guys, not to go past the Golden Gate Bridge and enter the bay. I mean, please. We don’t have room for you. Robert Blomerth oversees vessel traffic for the Coast Guard in San Francisco. He says ships have been waiting for days, sometimes over a week, just to come and drop off their cargo. Last week 16 huge ships were waiting offshore.
ROBERT BLOMERTH: It’s completely abnormal. Since I have been here, we have never had a situation where ships have to wait offshore. We never had that.
ROSALSKY: In the Seattle-Tacoma area, there are so many container ships coming in that the Coast Guard has asked them to drop anchor 30 miles north near Whidbey Island. Residents complain about the noise they make at night. Tom Bellerud, who manages the ports with the Northwest Seaport Alliance, says they are doing their best to end the traffic jams.
TOM BELLERUD: There has been such an increase in cargo volumes that terminals are struggling to process all the cargo quickly enough.
ROSALSKY: We matter so much right now because with the pandemic Americans have stopped spending so much on services. And they started spending more on tangible things, things that come largely from East Asia through the West Coast ports. Meanwhile, the pandemic has slowed the ability of workers to manage all the shipping containers that contain this stuff. Containers pile up in shipyards, and trains and trucks struggle to get them out quickly enough to make room for incoming containers.
Today, the first ship carrying this type of container, literally large metal boxes, set sail in 1956. And Lars Jensen, who analyzes the industry with Vespucci Maritime, says the container shipping industry does not ‘ve never experienced unrest on this scale before.
LARS JENSEN: It’s at least in a state of chaos that I don’t think it’s been in since it was invented in 1956.
ROSALSKY: With all these metal boxes and ships stuck at sea waiting to dock and unload, there aren’t enough empty boxes in the ships to pick up more cargo. And in March, a huge container ship got stuck in the Suez Canal and tied up more boxes and ships. Last month there was an outbreak of COVID-19 in a major port in southern China.
JENSEN: What’s going on in southern China right now is an even bigger disruption than the Suez Canal.
ROSALSKY: All of this leads to increased shipping costs and increasing delays. This makes it harder for stores to restock their shelves, for manufacturers and builders to get the parts they need, and for farmers to export their products. Analysts say this is one of the main reasons the price of products is rising. And by the way, it’s not even peak shipping season yet. Greg Rosalsky, NPR News.
(FROM THE SONG VETIVER, “STRANGER STILL (DANIEL T REMIX)”) Transcription provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.