If you're still hunting an elusive Christmas gift, it could be sitting on one of the 91 cargo ships anchored off the coast of Los Angeles.

The supply chain crunch may have stabilized, but the backlog of container ships waiting to unload goods is far from clear. The longest-waiting ship is Wan Hai, which arrived from China on Oct. 14.

The swath of languishing ships now extends 40 miles into the open sea, which prevents congestion and running afoul of California’s air pollution standards. Another 25 ships are set to arrive in the coming days, said Capt. J. Kipling Louttit of the Marine Exchange of Southern California. His team acts as the traffic police of the sea, ferrying ships in and out of port.


Live webcams for both Los Angeles and Long Beach on Wednesday showed half of the gates jammed with waiting trucks, while the other half saw sporadic traffic. The ports operate around the clock during the week and are partially open on the weekend. They will be closed this weekend because of Christmas.

In any other year, 91 ships would be a record number. But the massive pileup started in the summer, reaching an apex of 179 total ships on Nov. 16. Of that number, 114 waited to unload. Besides container ships, the ports also see cargo, oil tankers, and cruise lines coming into the area.

Four of the ships that will soon be allowed to dock are “mega-container” ships laden with more than 10,000 metal containers each, Louttit said.

All this cargo will break a record for the Western Hemisphere this year. Los Angeles authorities estimate that the port will process 10.7 million 20-foot containers in 2021, a 13% increase over a previous record set in 2017.

“As we approach a new cargo milestone amid this pandemic, I’m so proud of the resilience of this port, our labor force, and all of our partners,” said Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka. “While there is much more that we need to improve upon, we’re delivering record amounts of cargo, and goods are making their way into the hands of consumers and manufacturers."

Meanwhile, all those containers have to go somewhere. Both ports had initiated a policy in October to fine the shipping lines if offloaded cargo was not removed within a few days. Seroka said container congestion was a contributing factor in slowing down operations.

The fines were placed on hold as shippers began to move containers more rapidly, clearing 46% of the port’s old cargo. Port officials will revisit the policy after Christmas.


The Port of Los Angeles is North America’s leading seaport by container volume and cargo value, facilitating $259 billion in trade during 2020.