Earlier this month, the heavy, historic rainfall in the region prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to close all the maritime entrances to the Pacific Northwest, affecting vessel traffic at Southwest Washington ports, but not necessarily harming business.
The Coast Guard’s Sector Columbia River closed the entrances, including the Columbia River Bar at Astoria, on December 11, citing dangerous sea and bar conditions and large amounts of ocean and river debris. The Columbia River Bar provides access to all the container and bulk terminals along the Columbia River. Since that time, the bar has been open, but to very limited traffic, according to the Columbia River Bar Pilots.
Thus far, the biggest impact on ports has been delays in shipping traffic. Vessels either have to remain berthed at port or held at sea. There are also some delays in getting ships loaded and prepared to leave port. The delays are lasting between a couple days and a week.
Abbi Russel, spokesperson for the Port of Vancouver, said that ports are used to brief bar closures and limited traffic, especially during the wintertime. However, port authorities said this recent round of closures and the impact it is having on ship traffic is unprecedented.
“In the last couple of weeks, [the number of ships remaining at the Port of Longview] has been quite a bit higher than we would typically experience,” said Chris Davis, director of operations at the port.
The Port of Longview has nine berths, but ships can dock at only six of them. Davis said all six berths have been used. In Vancouver, Russell said the port “has a pretty full house.”
Davis and other port authorities said recent closures and limitations on vessel traffic will probably not have an impact on the ability to operate or do business, nor will it affect the businesses and industries associated with the ports and shipping.
“It’s a short-term blip,” Davis said. “Everyone is working hard to minimize the impact of the bar closures on commercial traffic to keep the flow of goods flowing through the Pacific Northwest.”
The majority of ship traffic is to and from Asia, Russia and South American countries. The ports mainly handle bulk products, such as large shipments of wheat, corn, soybeans, other grains, steel products, fertilizer and other agricultural goods.
While Russell said “it’s important to keep things moving,” a short delay will not negatively affect those types of products.
“Nobody wants to have their product delayed,” Russell added, “but those things can handle some delay if necessary, because of weather and other issues.”
The port’s logistical operations could come under some strain if there are continued bar closures. In an el Nino year with predictions of strong storms throughout the winter, that could be likely.
“When it starts getting to the point where products are running out and there is a delay in that chain of supply because we can’t receive the ships and off load them, then it would become problematic,” Russell explained.
Authorities said it’s hard to tell when that problem situation might occur – both because ports (especially the Port of Vancouver) can accommodate numerous ships and products, but also because it depends on future bar closures and how well ship traffic stays on schedule.
“It’s pretty subjective,” Russell said.