It's Not Just You, There Are More Cargo Ships in the Bay Than Usual

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Container ships sit idle in the the San Francisco Bay just outside of the Port of Oakland on March 26, 2021 in San Francisco, California. As the global pandemic has fueled online shopping and international shipping to fulfill orders, metal shipping containers have become scarce and have caused log jams at ports around the globe.
Container ships sit idle in the the San Francisco Bay just outside of the Port of Oakland on March 26, 2021 in San Francisco, California. As the global pandemic has fueled online shopping and international shipping to fulfill orders, metal shipping containers have become scarce and have caused log jams at ports around the globe.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Many of us have come to appreciate the beauty of the Bay Area even more during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re outside, we’re walking more, and we’re noticing things we maybe didn’t have time to note before. Of course, all eyes are on the bay itself, which has led to some questions about the vessels floating there.

Bay Curious listener Christian Garvin lives in San Francisco, but works in San Leandro. He crosses the Bay Bridge every day, so he’s got time to take in the sweeping views. Recently, that view has been a little ... cluttered.

“As I sit in traffic, I look over to my left and think: That’s a lot of cargo ships just sitting there,” Christian said. “As a business person, it makes me wonder, how is that efficient? What’s going on?”

Christian is right, there are more ships in the bay than usual. Under ideal circumstances, says Robert Bernardo, a spokesperson for the Port of Oakland, there would be zero ships anchored in the bay waiting to be unloaded. But in the last several weeks there have been as many as 13 ships. (If you’re curious about what each ship in the bay does, check out this Bay Curious breakdown.)

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“Asian factories are shipping goods in record numbers to replenish store shelves and assembly lines,” Bernardo said. “Retailers and manufacturers, consumers, they're all driving this surge and that's the phenomena that we're experiencing right now.”

Remember at the start of the pandemic when it was nearly impossible to get toilet paper? That was mostly because people were hoarding it, but it caused a hiccup in a supply chain meant for stable demand. That’s just one example of a disruption, but it has been happening throughout the manufacturing industry ever since the pandemic started. Now, companies are racing to catch up, but the shipping schedules are off.

Turns out, shipping is a delicate web of networks that depend on a reliable schedule. If a ship arrives late or can’t dock immediately to unload, it backs up the whole schedule. That’s at least part of why there are more cargo ships in the bay than usual.

The Port of Oakland has 14 berths that are fully operational. It seems logical that when cargo ships are backed up, all 14 would be in use at the same time. But that’s not how it works, Bernardo says. The port leases its berths to different marine terminal operators, who in turn have their own long-standing contracts with shippers. So, a ship waiting in the bay to be unloaded can’t just go to any berth, it has to go to one at a marine terminal with which it is contracted.

Delays that happen elsewhere in the world, like with the cargo ship that was stuck in the Suez Canal, or backups at the Long Beach or Los Angeles ports, eventually affect Oakland as well. In normal times, Oakland exports almost as many goods as it imports — largely agricultural products. But Bernardo says right now, they’re sending empty containers back to Asia. It’s all a desperate effort to get back on schedule.

“It's not good for the port because any type of logjam hinders trade,” Bernardo said.

The maritime community is predicting that the backup will last at least through summer, and could affect what we see on our shelves.