Foggy February leads to Sunny March
With 156 hours of fog on the Houston Ship Channel, February was literally a stop-and-go month on the maritime trade front. In fact, this year’s fog season stands to eclipse last year’s. Not unexpectedly, triple-digit fog hours lead to double-digit declines in vessel arrivals for the majority of the region’s ports from January to February. The most significant monthly decline took place in Galveston with 19% fewer vessel calls. Corpus Christi, Freeport, and Sabine also experienced at or near 14% fewer vessel arrivals. As expected, these somewhat significant declines resulted in year-to-date arrival totals below 2011 with the exception of Sabine which remains 2% ahead of last year. Yet, the other 2 data points that are of interest when comparing the first two months of 2012 against 2011, are the ports of Houston and Texas City. With respect to the latter, despite a 9.5% month-to-month drop, Texas City remains up over 29% - a rather impressive showing largely attributable to greater petrochemical throughput. Meanwhile, Houston’s 11% monthly decline still permitted the port to remain 1% above last year’s running total.
How did the port of Houston’s 11% decrease for the month translate across vessel types? All vessel categories save one – piloted tug and barges - were down or flat. General Cargo vessel arrivals were relatively robust in February since they matched January numbers and continued to climb over last’s year running totals. Bulk arrivals, on the other hand, were down 6% and remain off by over 17% for the year. Container vessels chalked up a 11.5% monthly drop but still managed to remain above 2011’s numbers in terms of arrivals. Car carriers fared about the same as containers – off for February but ahead of last year. Ro/Ro vessel and tank vessels did not have an upside either in the monthly or annual arrival arena with the latter down 12% and 13% respectively. So, if crude is off what of chemicals? After a truly extraordinary January, there were 26% less chemical tankers in February; however, the first 2 months of 2012 is an unfathomable 84% above 2011!
Of course, most of us realize that vessel arrivals is but one of several indicators as to the state of things on the waterfront. As the Presiding Officer of the Houston Pilots recently observed, the ships that have been coming in of late are carrying more cargo as evidenced by the deeper drafts. This was reinforced by the Port of Houston Authority’s most recent report that February revenue was up 16%; container tonnage is currently up 6% for the year; and steel is up 143% for the month. Indeed, not even the fog could dampen the positive numbers. Interestingly enough, when one dissects Houston Ship Channel tow movements – a vessel category that is particularly impacted by fog – there are strong indications that sunny times loom. Based upon the raw numbers, the month-to-month change for this category was a decline of 5%. Yet, 22% of the month was impacted by fog in addition to 6% fewer days. Consequently, when you make the appropriate adjustments and factor in the 13% loss of hours attributable to fog in January, February actually yields a commendable 10% monthly increase – a number which is consistent with the current 6% gain for the year. That result is clearly consistent with the current activity on the waterways that are benefiting from the spring sunshine.
Thomas P. Marian
Buffalo Marine Service, Inc.
"Leading the way and dedicated to exceeding expectations."