Ports of Seattle, Tacoma foresee better volumes ahead

While volumes handled by the Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA) remain down year-over-year, the tide appears to be turning, according to CEO John Wolfe.

Wolfe said he was “encouraged” that total August volumes were down 13.8% year-over-year instead of the approximately 20% recorded in previous months.

The ports of Seattle and Tacoma handled a total of 276,407 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in August.

“That still holds us at about 17.5% down over last year year-to-date August for the container volume,” Wolfe said during a press briefing on Friday.

The NWSA handled a total of 2,111,059 TEUs Jan. 1 through Aug. 31. Loaded imports declined 16.2%, while full exports decreased 13.2%.

Wolfe said he also was encouraged that the NWSA’s international container terminals experienced higher volumes in the first weeks of September. 

“The retailers are starting to move cargo in to prepare for the holiday season, and so we expect as we look into the months of September and October that we’re going to have stronger volumes in the next two to three months and then typically that volume drops off at the end of the year and into the first quarter of 2021,” he said.  

“The other indicator that we’re watching closely is the number of blanked sailings — or canceled vessel sailings. And the encouraging news there is that looking out to the next couple of months, we have no scheduled blanked sailings,” Wolfe said. “And so that’s another positive indicator that we should have stronger container volumes coming here in September and October.”

The NWSA blamed the economic fallout from COVID-19 for the 58 blanked sailings it sustained through August. That’s about the same number of canceled calls at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma in all of 2019. 

“Shifting to the noncontainerized cargoes, our breakbulk cargo tonnage is holding pretty flat compared to last year, which is encouraging given all of the economic challenges. And so we’ve done fairly well there,” Wolfe said. 

The NWSA reported August breakbulk cargo volumes were down just 0.5% year-over-year to 180,007 metric tons.

Wolfe said the NWSA’s usually “healthy auto business activity” has been hurt by the lack of discretionary consumer spending during the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We are, again, experiencing quite a drop over the previous year — upwards of a 30% drop year-to-date over last year — and that’s really just driven by the economic conditions,” he said. “We’re hoping that as the economy recovers we’ll see better times and more volume with the autos.”

The NWSA moved 91,874 vehicle units year to date through the end of August. 

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