Nova Scotia

Amid COVID-19, cargo container shortage sparked fears of product shortages in Canada

As the coronavirus brought activity at some ports to a halt, there was fear this would result in a shortage of cargo containers and leave store shelves bare. In Canada, a combination of factors helped avoid this from happening.

Most of the goods people use are transported at one time or another by metal cargo containers

Food, electronics, clothing and so many other goods are transported around the world via cargo containers. (David Horemans/CBC)

As the coronavirus brought activity at some ports to a halt, there was fear this would result in a shortage of cargo containers and leave store shelves bare.

Most of the goods people use day in and day out are transported at one time or another by rectangular metal containers that can be six to twelve metres long and about two metres wide. Everything from food, medical supplies and electronics are moved this way.

Normally, once a container arrives at its destination, its cargo is offloaded, then the empty container is loaded up with new goods and sent on to its next destination. But if something impedes this cycle, it can result in a container shortage.

However in Canada, a lot of hard work, co-operation and a little luck helped avoid this.

"I think everybody had those concerns at the start of this COVID-19 era, but things worked out much better than we thought," said Michael Broad, president of the Shipping Federation of Canada, a trade association representing the international cargo fleet in Canada.

MIchael Broad is the president of the Shipping Federation of Canada. (Submitted by Michael Broad)

Outside Canada, some places have had container shortages. In New York, Boston, Bangladesh and Italy, cargo containers were stuck at ports for weeks, which meant some shippers were struggling to find containers to make sure they could get their goods out.

In those places, importers like restaurants and retail chains were unable to collect their cargo because their staff were sent home due to the coronavirus.

This meant containers full of goods just sat on docks unable to be reused by someone else, said Bill Organ, a business development manager in Halifax with ACS Logistics, a company that works with importers and exporters to transport their goods.

He said containers must be picked up from the port, unloaded and brought back, usually within three or four days.

"A lot of equipment was being left at ports, which was then putting a strain and pressure on other shippers who were looking for other available equipment, so it was a vicious circle there for a few weeks," said Organ.

Moving away from the use of containers wasn't an option either. Ships, loading equipment, even trains and transport trucks are specifically designed to handle the containers.

Broad says the hard work of everyone involved in the shipping industry has kept cargo moving in Canada. (Steve Farmer/Port of Halifax)

"The whole global supply network has committed to containers, so to go back to that kind of shipping process that existed up until about 1960, there just isn't the facilities anywhere in the world anymore to deal with that," said Bob Ballantyne, president of the Freight Management Association of Canada, a group that represents the shipping community and the modes of transportation used to move goods.

There's been a sharp decline in the amount of cargo that's moving worldwide since restrictions put in place to fight COVID-19 shut down many of the world's industries.

For March, Canada's merchandise exports fell 4.7 per cent and imports declined 3.5 per cent, said Statistics Canada.

Broad said in Canada, cargo has moved fairly well throughout the pandemic. He credited people such as seafarers running the cargo ships, longshoreman loading or unloading ships, and truckers and rail workers who ultimately take goods to their final destination for the success.

Large numbers of cargo containers were stuck in ports like New York, Boston, Spain and Italy due to COVID-19. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

"People have worked together to keep things moving, I think that's the thing that has impressed me the most," he said.

Worldwide, things are improving. More containers are coming back into the mix as industries in some parts of the United States, Europe and China start up again.

"Demand in the rest of the world is still slow, so there won't be a lot of cargo moving in the next quarter," said Broad. "But hopefully as things open up, cargo will start moving again and containers will start moving again."

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