Port's cargo volume drops 11% Maersk's cutback major factor in slide from year-ago record

September 05, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

The volume of cargo moving through the port of Baltimore's public terminals dropped 11 percent during the second quarter, the most significant decline in years as the port suffered a huge cut in service by one of its largest steamship lines.

The drop from a total of 1,665,745 short tons to 1,482,441 short tons -- the second straight quarterly decline this year -- was exacerbated by the fact that the port experienced a near-record second quarter in 1995.

With the cutback by Maersk Line Inc., a down slide had been expected, though not quite so extensive. The number of tons of containers handled on Baltimore's docks dropped from 1,268,040 short tons during the second quarter of 1995 to 1,067,713 short tons during the same period this year, or a 15.8 percent decline.

Other cargo -- like automobiles, traditionally strong in Baltimore -- also saw a surprisingly steep drop-off. Overall, those declines offset impressive gains in the amounts of steel and pulp products handled.

"Coming on the heels of one of our best years ever in 1995, these figures are reflective of industrywide trends and the economy worldwide," Maryland Port Administration Executive Director Tay Yoshitani said yesterday.

As they form alliances, steamship lines that once called at a half-dozen East Coast ports have been choosing fewer ports in an effort to save time and money. The decision by Maersk, the Danish shipping giant, to end half its service here stemmed from its alliance with Sea-Land Service Inc.

Although Maersk began reducing its ship calls here last year, the loss was felt most sharply in the second quarter when Maersk officially ended its weekly South American service and redeployed its Middle East service as well. That resulted in the loss of hundreds of man hours for longshoremen and others.

The latest statistics -- released yesterday by the Maryland Port Administration, which operates the port's five public terminals -- do not reflect cargo handled at the private terminals. They process largely bulk commodities, such as coal and cement, as well as some automobiles manufactured by General Motors and Chrysler.

Particularly disappointing at the public terminals was the 18 percent decline in automobiles. Yoshitani said yesterday the drop reflects the decision by the Japanese to shift significant auto manufacturing operations to the United States and export less.

Yet, Yoshitani said, port officials "have every reason to believe that international trade in cars will continue to grow. What we need to do is understand the changes and grab the business as it changes."

While the port's double-digit losses were disappointing, 1996 has not been a strong year for any East Coast port, Yoshitani said. During the first half of the year, the port of Hampton Roads experienced a 1.6 percent gain, Virginia Port Authority officials said yesterday. That compares with an 8.8 percent loss here during the same period.

Yoshitani reiterated that Baltimore, in its battle with other ports, must carefully target cargo, rather than assume that it is positioned to capture everything. Currently, more than 70 percent of the Baltimore port's business is concentrated in containers, the massive steel boxes carried on ships.

The port's new strategic plan calls for a greater focus on break-bulk cargo, such as heavy equipment, automobiles, steel and fruit.

The 16.4 percent increase in steel handled here during the second quarter reflects the port's aggressive efforts to retain existing shipments and capture new ones, Yoshitani said. The port also saw a 63.1 percent rise in pulp products handled.

"We may have a couple more quarters with a slight decreases, but we're close to point of leveling off," he predicted.

Pub Date: 9/05/96

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