The U.S. Department of Agriculture has begun publishing a report to help exporters of agricultural products locate containers for their products.
USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service released the first copy of its Ocean Shipping Container Availability Report (OSCAR) on Wednesday. The weekly reports will be available here
on the USDA Website each Wednesday.
The report will use data provided to the USDA from the 10 container carrier members of the Westbound Transpacific
Stabilization Agreement (WTSA) that move cargo from the United States to Asia.
WTSA said the report is an outgrowth of discussions begun in 2010, amid severe space equipment shortages in the transpacific trade.
The Federal Maritime Commission looked at capacity shortages in its Fact-Finding Investigation 26, and in 2010 Commissioner Rebecca Dye told Congress that there was a “chronic unavailability of export containers for certain American exporters. This shortage is particularly severe in certain parts of the country."
The report will detail the availability of 20-, 40-, and 40-foot high cube “dry” containers at 18 locations around the country, as well as 20- and 40-foot refrigerated containers for both the current week and project availability for the next two weeks. The data is voluntarily provided to AMS by the WTSA members.
USDA estimates that more than 20 percent of agricultural exports by volume are moved in containers and WTSA said that ”agriculture exporters face particular equipment challenges in the U.S.-Asia freight market, where they account for about 20 percent of total waterborne shipments.”
Many agricultural exports are perishable commodities with short lead times to market and shippers need equipment in rural areas far from where import containers are unloaded and stored;.
Heavier agricultural cargoes generate demand for more equipment because containers reach their weight limits before they are fully loaded, WTSA said. It noted a historic 2-to-1 ratio of higher-value import traffic versus return export loads forces export shippers to compete for vessel space with empty containers being repositioned to Asia.
In addition, it notes shippers of farm products are dependent on specialized refrigerated and temperature-controlled equipment that are not widely used from Asia to the United States.
WTSA Executive Director Brian Conrad said OSCAR is not intended to create an exchange where specific, named carriers advertise surplus containers in a particular location and are put in touch with customers. Individual carrier data is collected by WTSA and submitted in aggregate to USDA, anonymously, for posting in weekly reports.
“The main purpose behind OSCAR is to provide visibility into how equipment flows tradewide on a week-to-week and seasonal basis, so that exporters are able to work with their carriers to access containers in the most efficient way possible,” he said.
WTSA said in its current form the report strikes an important balance, identifying areas in the United States where potentially surplus equipment accumulates throughout the year but also retaining an accurate, real-world understanding of what the container surplus and deficit data actually represent.
“Surplus or deficit data attributed to a specific carrier can easily be misinterpreted,” Conrad explained. “Surplus containers on a given day might be pre-allocated to other customers or trades; a deficit in the same location might simply reflect priorities based on a carrier’s cargo mix, customer base or inland terminal arrangements. There are many underlying factors affecting a carrier’s equipment situation from week to week, and we wanted to ensure that these would not compromise the report’s value as a planning and reference tool.”
Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, congratulated WTSA and USDA on creating the report and the FMC for pressuring steamship lines to make information about equipment more available.
He said he has asked his members to review the report to see if the aggregate figures it reports are "practical and useful or simply interesting."
Friedmann also noted that some very large carriers, including the three largest container carriers in the world - Maersk, MSC and CMA CGM - are not members of the WTSA, so that their container availability is not included in the report.
WTSA members include APL, Cosco, Evergreen, Hanjin, Hapag-Lloyd, Hyundai, "K" Line, NYK, OOCL, and Yang Ming.
Information will be provided on containers available in Charleston, Chicago Cincinnati, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Long Beach, Memphis, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Norfolk, Oakland, Savannah, Seattle and Tacoma. - Chris Dupin