To better manage fruit arrivals, Kopke said, “We need to move to breakbulk ships.” Fifty years ago, the Chilean business started with breakbulk service, which declined as container lines came in and offered lower freight rates. As competition decreased, container rates doubled and even tripled. Now, Kopke bemoans, “We pay more and have no service.”
In addition to cost problems, given the bills of lading, container carriers “have no obligation to come here in a timely way,” Kopke noted. “How can you import when you don’t know when the fruit will arrive? The container lines don’t exhibit any regard for their customers. It’s not the way it was years ago, when there were relationships between importers and the shipping lines. Our needs are not considered.” He said, for example, that one Chilean fruit container ship embarked on Dec. 15, with arrival expected 15 days later. That ship docked on Feb. 4.
Kopke continued that “breakbulk ships from Chile can be discharged and delivered for fumigation. When the stuff is in containers, you never know when it will arrive or be fumigated.”
Greenberg indicates: “People transitioned years ago from breakbulk to containers because containers were relatively cheaper. Recently, containers became very expensive, and the economics of breakbulk changed. Until refrigerated container rates come back to earth, prefer break bulk.” He added that it takes 4,000 pallets to fill a breakbulk ship.
Kopke said, “Efforts are being made to replace the containers because there was mistreatment by some of the container lines. That is not acceptable to the people who pay the freight. There have been many lawsuits made by the people who were affected last year. This is a very complicated story.”
Holt responded, “We share Mr. Kopke’s view that for seasonal fruit a robust specialized fleet is very welcome. One should also note that someone has to pay for the party. As the container markets have marginally cooled there has been an almost instant movement of some of the outlier cargoes back to containers. An equilibrium is needed. It’s above our pay grade to guess what that balance point should be.”
Holt noted, “SeaTrade and Cool Carriers have both announced new building programs. The world in general - notably growers, shippers, all lines, and governments - should welcome and support additional capacities as there are many factors that are benefitted from having a robust reefer fleet. It is agile and can pivot quickly.”
In 2022, as ocean trade recovered from the COVID pandemic, there was a rise in breakbulk cargo, Holt indicates. This is a move away from the river’s move toward containerization for the past 20 years. Breakbulk cargoes accommodate a flexible supply chain, says Holt. Argentine pears and lemons, as well as 17 breakbulk vessels bearing South African citrus this year were among the leaders in breakbulk cargo. Breakbulk fruit juice from the Far East and Mediterranean were new this year to the Delaware River system. Reefer ships also bore European frozen foods and packaged products from the Far East. Holt does not see this development necessarily being a permanent trend, but it does reinforce the strength of breakbulk carriers’ mantra: “Fast, dedicated, direct.” In the shipping world, breakbulk serves as a figurative “sea anchor in these difficult currents,” says Holt.