Rise and Fall

What do Baltimore, Keelung, Jeddah, Belfast, and Melbourne have in common? Yes, of course, all are ocean ports. But only the most obsessive maritime historians are likely to note their other connection: at some time over the past half-century, each has ranked among the world’s 20 largest container ports, only to tumble down the rankings as international trade has mushroomed and trade patterns have changed.

Lloyd’s List, the venerable Bible of ocean shipping, interviewed me recently for an interesting piece examining how container ports have evolved over the years. This sort of information used to be compiled in an annual volume called Containerisation International, which has long since been absorbed by Lloyd’s. Linton Nightingale, an editor at Lloyd’s, drew on the Containerisation International archives to assemble a picture of the port industry over time.

The data for 1973, the year of Containerisation International ‘s first almanac, seem almost quaint. The biggest container port in the world, New York/New Jersey, handled 1.6 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) over the course of that year — roughly as many as passed through Shanghai, now the largest port, every 12 days in 2021. The twentieth-biggest container port in 1973, Belfast, saw 237,000 TEUs move through. In 2021, the one hundredth-largest port, Jinzhou, China, handled six times as many.

The 1973 rankings, of course, were dominated by the United States, where the modern container shipping industry had begun 17 years earlier. Only four Asian ports, three of them in Japan, ranked in the top 20. As late as 1995, no port in mainland China was on that list. Today, in sharp contrast, six of the eight largest container ports are in China, and that doesn’t count ninth-ranked Hong Kong, whose container business has contracted since it ceded the title of largest port in 2005. “Volumes handled at Chinese container facilities represent more than 40% of total trade handled by the 100 ports in Lloyd’s List’s latest rankings,” Mr. Nightingale observes.

But the current focus on supply-chain risk is likely to bring significant changes in trade patterns, especially for manufactured goods. I expect that the list of the busiest container ports will look quite different a decade from now.

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.