During 2019 and the first half of 2020, the Port of Vancouver’s resilience and reliability were on full display. As Canada’s largest port, one of Vancouver’s biggest strengths continues to be the ability to accommodate the most diversified range of cargo of any port in North America. This diversity helped it retain its vital role in Canada’s supply chain in the midst of shifting global dynamics due to trade disruptions, including those caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Overall cargo through the Port of Vancouver in 2019 was 144 million metric tonnes (MMT) for the year, the second highest annual cargo total on record. This was 2% less than the 2018 record of 147 MMT.
For the first half of 2020, several sectors experienced declines as a result of weather conditions, trade challenges, cancelled sailings, railroad blockades and the global COVID-19 pandemic.
From January 1 to June 30, 2020, overall cargo through the port decreased by 1.1% from 72.4 to 71.7 MMT over the same time last year. Despite an overall decrease in cargo moving through the port, new mid-year records were set for bulk and containerized grain, as well as total foreign tonnage and foreign exports. Strong global demand for Canadian grain resulted in a new mid-year record of 16.3 MMT for both bulk and containerized cargo, an increase of 10.4%, or 1.5 MMT, compared to mid-year grain records from the previous year. Total foreign tonnage and foreign exports resulted in mid-year records of 57.8 and 49.7 MMT, up 1.2% and 2.1% respectively, due to strong increases in grain, petroleum, chemicals and canola oil volumes.
“We are experiencing unprecedented times in Canada and across the globe as we grapple with a pandemic that is causing economic impacts, making short term predictions difficult,” said Robin Silvester, president and chief executive officer at the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority. “Despite these challenges, mid-year cargo volumes through the Port of Vancouver remained stable and Canada’s trade has continued to flow, connecting Canadians and Canadian businesses to essential goods and international markets. This resiliency is a testament to the importance of diverse trading partners, foreign markets, and a range of cargo moving through the port.”
In 2019, strong global demand for Canadian grain resulted in a new record of 28.3 million metric tonnes for both containerized and bulk cargo, a 3.5% increase over 2018. Increases in wheat, up by 16%, and specialty crops, up by 14%, offset the 19% decrease in canola exports, which was largely due to a 62% decrease in canola exports to China. While grain products reached record levels in 2019, this sector was the most significantly impacted by tariffs and trade challenges with China, resulting in a 37% decrease in grain exports to this economy. In fertilizers, potash exports increased by 2% to a record amount of 9.4 million metric tonnes. Dry bulk cargo increased 1% to 91 MMT. Coal decreased 1.8% while grain was up 1%, potash increased by 2% and sulphur was up by 9%.
By mid-year 2020, increases in wheat, up 7.5%, canola, up 25.6%, and specialty crops, up 10%, contributed to record volumes compared to mid-2019 totals. In fertilizers, potash exports decreased by 6.7% from 2019’s mid-year record, and sulphur increased by 5.7%.
Sectors that experienced declines in 2019 total volumes included foreign petroleum products, down 42% over 2018. Year-over-year fluctuations in volumes through the port for this sector are not uncommon and were largely affected by U.S. refineries buying crude from U.S. sources, use of transportation alternatives, and product pricing.
Domestic forest products declined a total 6% in 2019, due to a reduction in local milling activities. Breakbulk volumes during the first half of 2020 showed a 17% decline, compared to 2019 mid-year.
In 2019, the total number of automobiles imported through the port was down by 1%, mostly as a result of lower Canadian sales. Additionally, auto sales were down 34% by mid-year 2020, when compared to the first half of 2019, due to pandemic-related impacts on consumer activity.
Shipping container quantities, measured by 20-foot equivalents or TEUs, reached a new record in 2019, up 0.1% to 3.4 million TEUs due to stronger export traffic of 1.6 million TEUs. 2019 year-end results reflected a number of factors including trade conflicts and shipping lines adjusting services based on market conditions.
2020 mid-year containerized volumes were down 7.7% to 1.6 million TEUs, when compared to mid-year 2019 cargo volumes. Despite lower volumes year-to-date, trade in this sector is still forecast to grow, as demand for containerized trade continues to indicate an upward trend in the years ahead.
“As we’ve seen from previous economic downturns, trade is generally well-positioned to rebound strongly,” said Silvester. “In container trade, we are already seeing monthly volumes recover when compared to the same month in 2019, and the demand for goods shipped in containers continues to be projected to grow going forward. A key part of our role as a Canada Port Authority is to advance the critical infrastructure required to accommodate this growth through the port.”
With respect to the cruise sector, the Canada Place cruise terminal welcomed a record 1.1 million cruise passengers, representing a 20% increase over 2018, as demand for cruises to Alaska from Vancouver remained strong. Cruise season at the Port of Vancouver has been postponed until October 31, 2020, following direction from Transport Canada. The port authority will continue to follow direction from Transport Canada, and is refocusing efforts to plan for the 2021 cruise season.
Despite a variety of challenges, and during uncertain times for global trade, the diverse number of trading partners and range of cargo handled by terminals at the Port of Vancouver allows it to remain resilient, regardless of variations in any one sector or commodity.