NEW BEDFORD — As backlogs in cargo shipping squeeze global supply chains, the port of New Bedford has emerged as a slight relief valve to the ratcheting pressures on the economy.
Last month, the Frio Hellenic, a 485-foot freighter, took port on the State Pier in New Bedford — reawakening the city’s long-dormant shipping industry and workforce in an urgent moment for global trade.
The hulking vessel, dwarfing even the harbor’s largest fishing boats, was the first of its kind to offload in New Bedford in more than three years. The dwindling membership of the International Longshoremen Association’s Local 1413 kicked their forklifts into gear for the first time since, swiftly unloading the green barrels of fruit juice concentrates and pallets of other food products through the holidays.
“This is a regeneration of ships offloading on the State Pier,” said David Wechsler, president of Maritime International, which runs logistics on the state-owned facility. “The container backup is having a halo-effect on New Bedford.”
With the complex and fragile global supply chain in upheaval, massive cargo vessels have come to overwhelm major U.S. ports.
Disruptions to the supply chain threaten to heighten the already soaring inflation rate, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The cost of shipping has increased as much as ninefold from the pre-pandemic norm. Last week, President Joe Biden urged the Federal Maritime Commission to investigate price gouging by large shipping companies at the center of the supply chain in his drive to tackle inflation.
In Los Angeles, cargo ships have been forced to wait in 100-vessel queues, with dozens anchoring at sea for days before they can offload. Nearly 13% of the world’s cargo ships are tied up by delays, according to data by Sea-Intelligence, a research firm in Denmark.
But in New Bedford last month, it was smooth sailing as the M/V Frio Hellenic was swiftly offloaded.
The vessel is as global as the troubled supply chain. The Panamanian-flagged ship is owned by a private Greek company, chartered from China, operated with a Russian crew and offloaded by New Bedford workers with paperwork and insurance administered by U.S. companies, Wechsler explained. Much of the products will be trucked north to Canada, he added.
New Bedford is not a container port, like the ports of Los Angeles, Baltimore or New York. But it has a niche in handling smaller shipments of cargo packed on pallets, known as “break-bulk,” since only the largest ports can handle shipping containers, Wechsler said.
Following recent renovations to State Pier, a four-year project funded by the Massachusetts Economic Development Council, New Bedford is primed to offload more vessels in the future. The upgrades included refrigerating warehouse space and replacing rotted pilings.
Maritime International is currently quoting different break-bulk vessels to offload their products in New Bedford, Wechsler said. This week, three-thousand tons of hardwood pilings from Suriname and Guyana are being offloaded at the Marine Commerce Terminal, he added.
“The whole supply chain has been disrupted,” Wechsler said. “But the shippers have figured out a smaller port like New Bedford can be more efficient. Break-bulk shipping has become more competitive, and New Bedford is a great break-bulk port.”
Disruptions to the supply chain, especially the continuing risk of inflation, threatens to ripple into each corner of the nation’s economy. But the prospect of more break-bulk shipping to New Bedford is a boon to the local workforce and port economy as a whole.
“There are all kinds of downstream benefits to having big ships in the port: Fuel, provisions, mechanical repairs,” said Justin Poulsen, executive director for the New Bedford Port Authority. “More ships represents more work for everyone on the harbor.”
Membership to Longshoremen Association’s Local 1413 has dwindled from more than 100 to 36 in the last few decades. Active members were forced to find other jobs while shipping in New Bedford has remained dormant. But last week, all 36 members of Local 1413 were working full-time to offload the cargo.
“It’s good to be back to work,” said Ron Raymond, the 72-year-old president of Local 1413. “We hope it keeps coming.”
Contact Will Sennott at email@example.com.
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