Cargo Ship Backup Abates, Easing Supply Bottleneck

Off the Charts: The Visual Says It All

Tug worker looking ahead as he guides a cargo ship in port

Monty Rakusen/Getty Images

If your holiday gifts are stuck on a container ship off Southern California’s big port complex waiting to unload, there’s a bit of good news—the line has gotten a little shorter lately. 

The number of ships waiting their turn to unload at the nation’s busiest cargo port has become symbolic of the supply chain problems holding back the economic recovery and contributing to inflation. In the months before the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of container ships waiting at anchor at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach didn’t exceed four, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California, a nonprofit group that monitors shipping traffic. 

But in October 2020 a traffic jam began, and that number swelled to a high of 86 ships by mid-November 2021, as Americans ordered unprecedented amounts of stuff, much of it shipped from overseas, and the pandemic disrupted supply chains. The backlog has finally started to diminish, and as of Monday the number of waiting ships had fallen to 51 at the two Southern California ports, which together process 40% of all containers arriving in the U.S.

The White House took credit for the bottleneck easing on Monday, pointing to a series of steps it announced in October to clear the traffic jam, including having the Los Angeles port switch to 24-hour operation.

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