It has been more than three decades since the port of New York and New Jersey was the busiest container gateway in the United States.
The first port to introduce containerisation to the nation, it lost the primacy to the west coast port of Los Angeles in 1989, as booming trade with China boosted the Pacific gateway.
Yet for a few months at the end of 2022, the east coast port moved more cargo than any other port in the US, including Los Angeles. The increased throughput helped push New York/New Jersey two places higher in the Lloyd’s List Top 100 container ports rankings to 17th position, overtaking Long Beach as the country’s second largest maritime hub.
While the Pacific gateway of Los Angeles remains the nation’s busiest port, unchanged in the rankings at 16, the port of New York and New Jersey’s ascension reflected a long-term trend of shifting cargo volumes from the west coast ports to those on the east and Gulf coasts.
The Panama Canal expansion in 2016, which allowed for larger ships to transit the Central American artery; labour tensions that have escalated around every contract renewal since 2002; and the costliness of California’s ports have all contributed to this trend.
However, while cargo has been slowly shifting eastwards for more than a decade, that trend was turbocharged during the pandemic — first because of congestion in west coast ports, and later due to labour concerns.
More than 100 boxships were anchored outside the adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach (down one place year-on-year to 19th position) during January 2022, in what came to symbolise the pandemic’s demand-fuelled supply chain crisis.
Ports on the US east and Gulf coasts were already experiencing strong growth when shippers began diverting cargo there to avoid west coast congestion, overwhelming terminals and creating backlogs.
Then, in July, the west coast dockworkers' contract — which covers more than 22,000 International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers in 29 west coast ports — expired, leaving disruption-worn and wary shippers with fears over potential industrial action.
More than 80% of the port of New York and New Jersey’s growth in 2022 is estimated to be cargo diverted from the west coast.
Our vessel-tracking data shows non-domestic arrivals to major ports on the US west coast fell approximately 5% during 2022.
While demand has cooled significantly from 2022’s highs, imports to major east and Gulf coast ports through to May 2023 are still 9.4% above pre-Covid 2019 levels, while those to their west coast peers are down 9.5%.
However, in May, the top five west coast ports handled more cargo than their peers on the east and Gulf coasts for the first time in 12 months.
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