Battered by trade wars and Covid-19, the Northwest maritime industry is applying lessons learned from both crises, according to leaders who spoke at Pacific Marine Expo’s virtual Maritime Economic Forecast.
With China as their number-one trading partner, the Northwest Seaport Alliance of Seattle and Tacoma saw immense change as a result of U.S.-China trade disputes, followed by a steep falloff in vessel traffic as Covid-19 reverberated in the world economy.
“Shipping is way down…the ports in the Puget Sound area are suffering,” said Jon Talton, economic columnist for the Seattle Times. Washington state is “trade-vulnerable” and has taken a brunt of fallout from the Trump administration’s trade policies and “antagonizing allies like Canada,” said Talton.
Real relief won’t come “until we get past the pandemic,” said Talton. An incoming Biden administration will need “a laser-like focus on science and expertise” to deal with Covid-19 and also climate change, which “will affect the ability of the fishing fleet to sustain its viability” as north Pacific fish stocks shift in response, he said.
In Seattle itself, the social upheaval of 2020 has taken its toll on new business investment in Seattle, said Talton. He expressed little confidence that city leaders can grapple with that fallout.
“They’re very woke, but they’re not very practical. There’s an antipathy to business,” said Talton. “Social justice begins with good jobs…it’s not between left and right, it’s between destructive and constructive.”
Washington state Commerce Director Lisa Brown said it’s critical to get bipartisan support for state and federal infrastructure packages. Like port officials, state economic experts are trying to pivot to new overseas trade partners and need to invest more in those efforts, said Brown.
“That fell away in the last recession” and there are opportunities now, like negotiating a lowering of trade barriers in Vietnam to Washington grain exports, she said.
“We had hoped to be in Vietnam now” with ongoing efforts with the federal departments of Agriculture and Commerce, she said. To Congress now, “the most significant message we’re sending is to pass a package,” Brown added.
Port of Seattle Executive Director Steve Metruck said the overall impacts to the maritime industry have been “worse than 9/11” but spoke to how the port has rallied, starting with health and safety measures for fishing crews. The shutdown of cruise lines has been another huge hit, and port planners are assessing that industry’s condition to include in their own projections for future use of Seattle’s expanding cruise facilities.
“We look forward to its safe return,” said Metruck.
Even before 2020 struck, the twin ports were facing significant competitive pressures from other U.S. ports, noted John McCarthy, the Port of Tacoma commission president and co-chair of the Northwest Seaport Alliance.
“Some other areas have developed cost advantages over the Northwest,” said McCarthy.
“It’s been an extremely volatile year,” said John Wolfe, executive director of the seaport alliance. There’s been a steep drop in containers volume, from 2.6 million in 2019 to 2.13 million in 2020.
However, “2021 will be a better year, we believe that,” he added.