A shortage of parking for large ships hauling goods through the Columbia River is creating a bit of a challenge for those in the shipping industry to keep up with the demand for space.
The Columbia River Steamship Operators Association is working to figure out a long-term solution.
The CRSOA tells FOX 12 at times, when anchorages aren't available, ships are forced to slow down and drift outside the Columbia River, or utilize other expensive options. When that happens, terminals along the river become very congested, schedules are disrupted and the movement of goods in and out of the United States faces serious delays.
The Columbia River trade corridor is known to those in the shipping industry as the lifeblood of our regional economy, supporting 46 million tons of foreign trade at a value of over $20 billion annually, according to the CRSOA.
The Columbia gateway is the nation's top wheat export and second for soybean exports, according to the CRSOA.
"It's not an industry most are aware of," said CRSOA Chairman John Coyle. "They see the ships and they don't understand what they're doing and the scope of all the logistical issues that go with bringing these big monsters into the river."
Coyle says part of the CRSOA's job is to make ports in the Columbia increasingly popular for commercial shippers to do business and sometimes that's challenging based on the cost to move goods.
"For example, the Chinese buy a majority of soy produce in the U.S.," said Coyle. "The trip from New Orleans to China is probably 35 to 45 days, while trip from here to China 15 days. Yet, it's often cheaper to do business from New Orleans than from here and one of those reasons is port costs." When you throw in a shortage of anchorages for Panamax-sized ships along the river, that makes doing business even more challenging. Each ship is about the size of two and a half football fields.
Before last summer, the CRSOA says the river only had four deep water spots designated for Panamax-sized ships to anchor.
"It's not a shortage in the sense that they're driving around a parking lot looking for a place to park, it's more of finding a place that will be available upon a vessel’s arrival," said Coyle.
If those spots are full, a ship needs to utilize one of the very limited number of stern buoys in the river, a lay berth dock that's large enough to handle a ship that size, or drift outside waiting for an opening. All options drastically increase the cost of vessels calling this port.
"There are several additional costs going into that, it ranges from $30,000 to $60,000 so it's an even worse option," said Coyle.
The CRSOA took on the mission last year to push for more anchorages to help alleviate the situation. They called upon the U.S. Coast Guard and the Columbia River Pilots, Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, and other industry partners to help them find additional safe and appropriate deep water anchorage spots. Thanks to the efforts of all these organizations, a handful of new anchorages were identified.
"That cooperation has resulted in this summer we were able to temporary designate four new anchorage spots in the Astoria, Rice Island area, which basically doubled our anchorage availability for larger vessels," said Coyle.
Coyle says so far it seems to be helping, but in the long term, more needs to be done to address the inherent parking problems along the Columbia River.
"The goal is to increase business. We don't want to lose or stay the same," said Coyle. "So these new projects that are being discussed on the river entail more ships, which means we'll want more places to park."
He added, "For the long-term growth of the river, it's very important, I think."
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