Ports of Seattle, Tacoma facing new set of pandemic-related pressures

A year after scrambling to stave off collapse, the U.S. ports of Seattle and Tacoma are dealing with an overload of traffic.

A year after scrambling to stave off collapse, the U.S. ports of Seattle and Tacoma are dealing with an overload of traffic.

“We’ve rebounded in 2021 and you’ve probably heard about congestion,” Northwest Seaport Alliance CEO John Wolfe told the audience at the 2021 King County Maritime Economic Forecast breakfast on Friday, 19 November.

With 53,400 jobs and USD 12.4 billion (EUR 11 billion) in economic impact, the twin ports are a pillar of the region’s economy. Now like other U.S. container ports, they are facing a glut of imported goods.

“One of the reasons, as I look at it, is the industry has been underinvesting in infrastructure,” Wolfe said.

Publicly held companies are under such pressure to provide return on investment to shareholders and reduce their costs that distribution systems operating at “optimal” levels quickly deteriorated in the face of booming demand and supply constraints, according to Wolfe.

Terminal 5 in Seattle – the 185-acre site of a USD 400 million (EUR 355.2 million) capital investment that will open to container ship arrivals in January 2022 – was pressed into service as parking for 3,000 empty containers to relieve crowding at other terminals, Wolfe said.

“We’re also working with importers to encourage them to pick up their boxes,” he said.

Seattle’s cruise ship traffic went from a USD 900 million (EUR 800 million) annual trade to virtually zero for 2020, but is now on a rebound. With grain deliveries and recreational vessel traffic well above average for 2021, and commercial fishing and industrial moorage down only slightly, the port business “[is] headed in the right direction,” Port of Seattle Executive Director Stephen Metruck said.

Metruck said some USD 378 million (EUR 335.6 million) in infrastructure planning includes replacing pilings, bulkheads, and other improvements at the port’s facilities for large commercial fishing vessels, and developing Terminal 91 uplands into light-industrial space to include fishing support businesses. Converting the old fishermen’s supply to a new “maritime innovation center” is scheduled for completion in 2024, and a submarine cable from Terminal 46 will carry shore power for Pier 66.

“This is part of our effort to decarbonize the waterfront,” Metruck said.

A smaller carbon footprint is a selling point for Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers, and what Karl Bratvold, managing partner of the trawler Starbound and a GAPP director called, “the most climate-friendly protein in the world.”

Bratvold and GAPP CEO Craig Morris recounted their past two years of marketing, when pollock from the Seattle-based trawler fleet won more customers as an essential home-freezer item during the pandemic.

GAPP’s market research shows “sustainability” is a high-scoring value with U.S. consumers, and its marketing material now shows the Alaska pollock “which is about as low as you can go” in terms of carbon footprint for protein, Bratvold said.

The other key part of GAPP’s labeling, wild-caught, “means a lot to consumers,” Morris said.

“That’s something we really have to be mindful of,” Morris said.

Reporting by Kirk Moore

Photo courtesy of Kirk Moore/National Fisherman


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