The Working Waterfront

Maine ports avoid shipping delays… for now

Ancillary businesses hurt from reduced cruise ships

Craig Idlebrook
Posted 2021-11-17
Last Modified 2021-11-17

Off the coast of Southern California, there is a sizable fleet of container ships with as many as half a million containers waiting to make port. Meanwhile, a major terminal at one of China’s most important ports recently was shuttered for two weeks because of a single case of COVID-19 among the workforce there.

The disruption in oceanic trade caused by COVID-19 and cascading logistical challenges may last for months or years, according to shipping analysts.

And yet in Maine, there are no major bottlenecks or delays to report in the state’s ports, according to officials. That’s partly because of the nature of what is shipped to and from Maine, and partly because one of the largest shipping partners in the state has so far avoided many of the major delays plaguing other shipping lines.

Eimskip … has continued a trajectory of steady growth despite the pandemic.

In fact, the Port of Portland is on pace to move more cargo than before, according to Matt Burns, interim executive director of the Maine Port Authority. That’s been fueled by the growing trade brought in by Eimskip, an Icelandic transportation company that connects the European Union, the Northeast United States, and South America.

Burns says Eimskip focuses on specialized shipping which hasn’t been affected by the major delays in larger ports, and the company has continued a trajectory of steady growth despite the pandemic. The company is still facing the same challenges other shipping companies face because of COVID-19—staff shortages, high demand, competition for shipping containers, and trucking issues—but it is weathering the storm well so far, he said.

“All those things are an issue, but they seem to be being managed pretty well at the moment,” he said.

Searsport Town Manager James Gillway says that traffic at the much smaller Mack Point terminal also has been steady, without any real snarls that he has noticed. The cargo there is mostly bulk products like road salt, scrap metal, and liquid fuels, which are not as susceptible to many of the logistical challenges that container ships have faced.

“I have seen a few vessels anchored, but it wasn’t, I don’t believe, pandemic-related,” Gillway said. “It’s more or less business as usual.”

The smaller size of Maine’s ports may also be an advantage in avoiding some of the logistical issues that are slowing down shipping in the larger ports around the world, Burns said. The problem is that once things get tangled up in one of the larger ports, it is difficult to get things untangled.

“You just have such a high volume of freight that is coming into the terminal that they have to run like clockwork,” he said. “Any facet that slows down will cause delays. That’s a big part of what you’re seeing, and I just don’t think we deal with it on the same level in Portland.”

But that doesn’t mean Maine’s ports are immune from disruption, Burns said. For example, businesses that provide logistical support to large ships coming into Portland and Penobscot Bay have lost more than half their revenue because of the lack of cruise ships coming to call during the pandemic.

These businesses, from pilot ships to water delivery, were already navigating diminished oil tanker traffic before the pandemic, Burns said. So far, they largely have found ways to continue working, but further disruption could prove a challenge. If too many of these support businesses close, that could ultimately hamper shipping traffic, Burns warned.

“If we start losing pilots, or things like that, we could see delays in the ports, and that could be a real problem,” he said.

And of course, as with everything that has happened during the pandemic, there is an understanding that the full scope of the logistical challenges may not yet be evident. If there is one lesson from the pandemic, it’s that what happens halfway around the world can have a major impact locally in ways planners can never anticipate. That’s a lesson Burns knows well at this point.

“Everything is connected, and we have a global supply chain, and one ripple will really affect everything, especially in the big ports,” he said. “It could just be we haven’t realized the effect yet, that it hasn’t really caught up to us.”