Glut of Cargo Ships Waiting to Enter LA Ports Loiter Along Malibu Coast

A large container ship is seen off the tip of Point Dume earlier this month. 

The backlog of container ships at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach may have started in mid-2020 with the pandemic, but it’s now the worst it’s ever been—112 ships were waiting to enter and unload as of last week, according to Bloomberg. Pre-pandemic, the usual number of ships waiting was 17, according to ABC/7. The backlog is only expected to get worse with another 45 ships expected to arrive shortly.

In an effort to ease the congestion, the Port of Long Beach just announced it would suspend an ordinance that prohibited stacking containers more than two tall; effective immediately, up to four containers can now be stacked in the port area.

Forty percent of the nation’s cargo is processed through the LA and Long Beach ports—the two largest ports in the U.S. Most ships from China and other Asian countries arrive at those ports, carrying the goods that consumers and manufacturers demand: clothes, shoes, furniture, toys, kitchenware, cleaning supplies, parts and raw materials needed to build cars, aircraft and appliances.

“The ships are waiting at anchor or adrift because there’s no room for more ships in the port,” Captain Kip Louttit told USA Today. “There’s no space. The parking garage is full.”

While waiting for a docking space, those container ships that are not anchored are slowly cruising the areas outside shipping lanes, including doing lazy figure eights past Malibu and just hanging out off the Malibu coast. Huge cargo ships have been observed right off Point Dume biding their time while waiting the current average of 11 days to dock.

A number of Malibu residents raised concerns about whether the behemoths were allowed to transit or even anchor in the official Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and Marine Managed Areas (MMAs) off Point Dume. A check of the regulations reveals that transit and even anchoring are allowed, with no stated limitations on vessel size—the ships just aren’t allowed to go fishing there. MPA/MMA boundaries are not marked by buoys.

And the 100 idling vessels are causing another problem: air pollution from dirty exhaust emitted by secondary diesel engines, according to Grist. And that air is affecting Malibu. The problem has been recognized by the California Air Resources Board, with recent studies showing a sharp uptick in emissions of cancer-causing particulate matter and smog-forming nitrogen oxides. Port officials hope the situation is just temporary, but the board is not convinced that is the case.

Officials, shippers and manufacturers blame the gridlock on a variety of causes: increased shipping costs, a lack of truckers and warehouse workers further down the supply chain, and the upcoming Christmas season.

Last week, President Joe Biden announced the Port of LA would shift to a 24/7 operation to relieve supply chain bottlenecks and move stranded container ships that are driving prices higher for U.S. consumers and causing inflation. The Biden administration estimates the backlog will likely continue into 2022.

But there’s more to the backlog than shipping delays and surreal images from Malibu’s bluffs—the traffic jam is taking the worst toll on sailors. The LA Times reported last week that 300,000 migrant merchant marine sailors had been stranded on vessels at sea or in ports around the world, enduring “unbroken monotony and growing desperation.” Unions and nonprofit groups report concern over their emotional well-being with “exhaustion, suicide and violence at sea, including at least one alleged murder on a cargo ship headed to LA.”

The sailors spend weeks and months with no phone service, spotty Wi-Fi connections and a food budget that amounts to $7.50 per day, the LA Times continued, living in cramped quarters confined to a 680-foot by 98-foot ship for months longer than they agreed to, with direct contact limited to a few other crew members.

In addition, the unvaccinated crews fear COVID-19, and no U.S. port allows unvaccinated sailors to leave their vessels. However, the Long Beach Department of Health & Human Services has been boarding ships at port and has given free Johnson & Johnson vaccines to about 7,700 seafarers.

Maritime union protections say maritime sailors should sail no more than 11 months a year on a contract, with an employer-paid flight home at the end, but the LA Times interviewed an Indonesian sailor who has worked 15 months straight without a break.

Nearby Port Hueneme has been offloading smaller cargo ships, spokesperson Dona Lacayo told the VC Star last week, helping to relieve the long-term congestion at LA ports. Vessels offloading at the LA County ports can hold up to 5,000 containers, whereas the smaller vessels coming to Port of Hueneme only carry 1,250-1,500 containers.

Some shippers are beginning to utilize ships specifically destined for Hueneme to avoid the congestion in LA. No hazardous cargo is allowed at Hueneme, and much of their delivered freight consists of fresh produce (especially bananas), cars and fertilizer.