Port Watch-Springing Ahead

Tom Marian, Buffalo Marine Service, Inc.

Spring 2018 burst across the Texas waterfront like no other spring. March characteristically makes or breaks the first quarter of the year, but this year it has exceeded all expectations. Granted, February’s poor showing – undoubtedly compounded by the unrelenting fog – pushed a number of arrivals into March. Additionally, comparing a 28-day long month to a 31-day long month tends to skew the vessel arrival percentages. Thus, in order to ground truth for Texas’ port activity, it’s best to focus on how last year’s first quarter fared against this year’s.

In the aggregate, every port was up by double-digit percentages yielding a nearly 2% year-to-date gain. Curiously, the southernmost ports on the Texas coastline continue to lag behind 2017’s first quarter’s numbers. Brownsville, despite registering the highest monthly percentage gain of its Texas port brethren, remains 7% off last year’s pace. Corpus Christi found itself in the same boat. That is, its 21% monthly gain still nets a 9% year-to-date wane. Finally, the port of Freeport conceptually replicated February’s performance with 10% more arrivals in March which simply could not make a dent in the year-to-date deficit of over 11%.

To the east, Sabine’s March may not have matched its stellar performance of January but with the most recent monthly jump of 17%, it continues to outpace 2017’s arrival stats by over 12%. Galveston – a port that has been longing for an end to its multi-year slide – welcomed 15% more vessels over the course of the last month. This bolstered the port’s year-to-date numbers by 18%. Texas City also saw a pronounced leap in vessel arrivals – to the tune of 31% – permitting the port to register a gain of just shy 1% for the year.

Deepdraft Vessel Arrivals by Port

Then there is Houston! By the time Easter dawned, a record 800 vessel arrivals had been logged by the port. This easily eclipsed the previous arrival record set back in March 2012. To put things in perspective, the difference between February and March of 200 arrivals exceeded the combined March arrival tally of Galveston and Texas City. The fact that the port’s capacity was not taxed by such an unprecedented volume of traffic is quite impressive.

So how did the 33% monthly gain shake out across the various categories of vessels? Not surprisingly, the energy trio took center stage. Chemical tankers lead the charge as its throughput more than doubled over the last month. Ironically, this was still not enough to pull chemical tankers into positive territory for the year as it remains 1% off last year’s count. Neither oil tankers nor LPG could claim such torrid monthly results. Yet, after posting gains of 31% and 26% respectively, both categories are solidly on the “gain” side of the ledger by 10% and 7% respectively.

Houston Deepdraft Arrivals by Type

On the “solid” cargo front, things were not as sanguine. Bulkers experienced a 7% uptick; however, at this point last year, there were 8% more moves. General cargo business appears to be poised to outdistance last year’s lackluster numbers. The most recent monthly vessel arrival numbers are up 8.5% which provided a slight boost to the year-to-date performance by just over 1%; another indication that shoreside projects are steadily on the rise. Cars and containers keep “a coming” as reflected by larger loads from roughly the same number of vessels. In sum, there is no indication of slackening demand for finished goods on the import front and super sacks filled to the brim with plastic pellets for export.

Tows that plied the Houston Ship channel did not experience as robust a performance as the deep draft traffic when compared against last year’s transit numbers. While ocean-going barges posted the 2nd highest monthly percentage gain for the port, it remains a substantial 19% below that of last year’s calls. Its brownwater cousin – the inland tows – outdistanced last month’s percentages by almost 15%. Unfortunately, highwater on the Mississippi River prevented enough tows to push this category into positive territory vis-à-vis last year. Thankfully, the over-capacity dilemma that the tank barge industry has confronted these last 3 years is slowly evaporating.

A longer month, longer days, and warmer temps contributed to March’s bounty of maritime trade in Texas. Hopefully, the potential head winds of a trade spat with the world’s second largest economy won’t create a drag on the momentum that should set trade records for the port of Houston and its sister ports.

  • Date April 25, 2018
  • Tags 2018 April