Covid disrupts Northwest exports

By Tad Thompson, AJOT

For at least now in the COVID Era, North American exporters are having a difficult time scheduling ocean transportation to the Far East.

Industry sources indicate that shipping lines are thriving with huge Asian cargo volumes bound for the U.S. West Coast. But North American export trade is secondary and is often a step-child for ocean cargo services.

Melanie Stambaugh, of the Northwest Seaport Alliance, which represents the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, said her group’s imports are up 25% this year. In April exports from Seattle and Tacoma were down 11%.

Because of willingness to pay high rates, goods imported to Washington State from the Far East, shipping lines are profiting nicely. As a result, for exporters, vessel schedules have been unreliable.

Rebecca Lyons, the international marketing director of the Washington Apple Committee said that “yes, we are hearing” from her grower-members “of challenges in getting space onboard container ships. A container may be stuffed and waiting at the port, and then get rolled onto a different vessel with a delayed arrival. This is very challenging for our export customers as they do not know when to expect arrivals, and in some markets there are very specific holiday periods that are high demand. If the containers reach them after the festive period, they’ve lost sales, and then have product that takes longer to move in the market.”

To help that situation, Stambaugh indicated that Seattle and Tacoma “are trying to incentivize exports.” The ports are finding unused dock warehouses that can hold perishable products until a shipping opportunity arises. If exporters have a place to hold their products it alleviates the extra transportation cost of running back and forth between their own warehouse and the port.

Stambaugh indicated: “We are the second largest refrigerated gateway in the U.S.” largely because of handling a wide variety of U.S. agricultural products. While Washington apples are iconic, the seaports also handle exports of meat, pears, potatoes, dried legumes, pork, fish, poultry, eggs, plants and flowers and even fresh cherries.

According to Lyons, Seattle and Tacoma are the primary ports for Washington apples exports. Of course, Washington shippers’ seaport of choice “does depend on the destination.” For the Latin American market Washington apples are trucked to Long Beach. The fruit rides the roads to Florida to fill Caribbean demand. Consolidated loads are significant in shipping to the Caribbean islands.

Regarding export destinations for Washington apples, Lyons said North American neighbors, Mexico and Canada, respectively, rank one and two. “Last season these were followed by Taiwan, India, Vietnam and Indonesia. Our industry ships to over 60 different countries.”

The apples are shipped palletized in reefer containers, and do not require modified atmosphere packages.

Washington on average exports about 30% of its entire apple production.