A months-long trend of container congestion at the world’s maritime ports is on the verge of growing even worse, as a massive containership jammed sideways in Egypt’s Suez Canal has frozen ship traffic through that crucial corridor.
Vessels use the canal to pass between the eastern Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, cutting thousands of miles off voyages that would otherwise take them around the southern tip of Africa.
However, that route is blocked today by the vessel Ever Given, a ship operated by Evergreen Marine with a carrying capacity of some 20,000 twenty foot equivalent units (TEUs). The ship was transiting the canal yesterday heading north toward the Port of Rotterdam when it was caught in high winds and a sandstorm and ran aground, blocking traffic in both directions, according to published reports.
The traffic jam is significant to global freight flows because nearly one-third of the world’s container ship traffic passes through the canal each day as boats ply shipping routes between Europe and Asia.
Engineers are now working to free the grounded vessel, but time is critical since more than 50 ships pass through the canal on any given day and congestion is growing worse by the hour, supply chain visibility software vendor Project44 said in a release.In fact, 34 container vessels were either immobilized in the canal or en route to the zone, representing 379,200 TEUs of trapped capacity as of March 24 at 3:50 pm CET, the firm said.
“It’s another big blow to global trade in an already back-logged and battered supply chain year,” Jett McCandless, CEO of project44, said in a release. “The Suez Canal supports some 10% of global trade—and now the Evergreen vessel has single-handedly put a stop-block in both directions to that vital trade route between Asia and Europe. If they can’t dislodge it with tugs at high tide, they will have to start removing containers to lighten the load and refloat her.”
In addition to the sheer volume of cargo now frozen in those waters, the event hits at a time when freight flows are in a vulnerable position. The typical exchange of full and empty containers has been snarled in recent months as many nations emerge simultaneously from yearlong coronavirus lockdowns, triggered a rush of demand for goods to fuel industrial restarts, restock retail shelves, and supply the annual winter holiday peak.
At the same time, the U.K.’s tumultuous “Brexit” split with the European Union has led to logjams at British ports, even as new strains of Covid-19 threaten to tighten trade and travel restrictions under new waves of infection
In response, authorities such as the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) have opened investigations into related effects of the problem, such as a jump in container-detention fees that ports are assessing on beleaguered carriers. Congress is also considering legislation to examine supply chain vulnerabilities and seek solutions.
In the meantime, major U.S. import and export hubs such as the Port of Los Angeles, Port of Long Beach, and Port of Oakland are seeing long delays in the time required to load and unload container ships, leading to backups of anchored ships waiting in harbors.
Editor's note: This article was revised on March 24 to add container vessel congestion data from Project44.