The supply-chain constraints, spiking rates, and container dislocations associated with the COVID-19 pandemic saw some cargoes switching to breakbulk from containers in recent years. That trend has continued into 2022, as seen by the growth in breakbulk business at ports around the country.

From the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf of Mexico and up and down the East Coast, some ports have seen double-digit, and, in the case of some cargoes, triple-digit, breakbulk growth spikes in recent months. The question, as is often the case with shifts in cargo patterns, is whether that growth is sustainable. Decreases in container volumes and rates suggest that an easing of container conditions is on the horizon, but the supply-chain crisis will likely not be resolved in the short run.

Commodities Boost Breakbulk

Breakbulk growth in commodities such as iron, steel, rubber, and forest products has been seen in Georgia ports, which reported a 28% increase in May. Seattle and Tacoma, of the Northwest Seaport Alliance, have shattered breakbulk records in recent months, as container volumes decreased. Volumes have grown 34.3% this year through August, and July was a record-breaking month for breakbulk cargo handled at NWSA-operated breakbulk terminals.

Imported steel is leading a breakbulk surge at the Port of New Orleans, where volumes more than doubled during the fiscal year 2022, growing by 123%. Rubber, plywood, and breakbulk coffee volumes have also seen increases. The port said CEO Brandy Christian, “is being sought as an alternative for shippers seeking to mitigate their exposure to container shipping challenges.”

The same phenomenon was noticed by Jeff Theobald, the executive director of the Port of Philadelphia, who said that some shippers “shifted to breakbulk” last year. Breakbulk steel volumes at the port were up 196% in 2021, and cocoa went up 106%.

At the Port of Jacksonville, which has emphasized its container and auto businesses in recent decades, the breakbulk volume also saw increases during COVID-19. The paper company UPM has been moving large volumes of glossy paper through a large on-dock breakbulk warehouse in Jacksonville for decades.

“With that anchor of a tenant, it was hard to walk away from breakbulk,” said Alberto Cabrera, the port’s sales director. “The port has a strategy of keeping diverse cargoes flowing through the port,” and JAXPORT’s breakbulk volumes of frozen poultry, wood pulp, and lumber have shown increases.

The Port of Vancouver, Washington, picked up two new breakbulk customers, shipping aluminum and bagged sulfites, in the last year, each bringing an additional vessel per month to the port. “That’s a fantastic shot in the arm for us,” said Alex Strogen, the port’s chief commercial officer, “and provides predictability and stability in our work.” Both the new customers signed three-year contracts with the port, symbolic, according to Strogen, that they have “lost faith in the container side of the equation.”

Port Tampa Bay’s strong growth in its breakbulk business is attributable, according to port spokesperson Lisa Wolf-Chason, “to Florida’s rapid expansion,…

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