Get PolitiFact in your inbox.
If Your Time is short
Posts on social media claim there are more than 50 cargo freighters anchored off of the California coast. The posts suggest this will lead to nationwide food and supply shortages.
Some of the posts also claim that the cargo boats are not being allowed to dock and unload, as part of a “manufactured supply-chain halt.”
It is correct that there is a record-breaking number of ships at anchor in Southern California waiting to unload their cargo, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California. But experts say that the backup is being caused by labor shortages, holiday buying surges and other COVID-19 related issues.
Experts say that supply-chain disruptions and some product shortages are to be expected as the world continues to navigate a global pandemic.
A record-breaking number of cargo ships are anchored off the coast at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. But posts on social media are falsely claiming that these ships are deliberately being prevented from unloading their cargo.
People have been sharing images of the cargo freighters online and speculating why the ships are unable to dock and unload. In the posts and in the comments sections, people are worried about nationwide shortages in the coming months.
"There are now 56 cargo freighters anchored off the coast of California from Oakland to Long Beach in what can only be considered a manufactured supply-chain halt," one post reads.
"Reports have stated there are over 1000 holding and the number is rising," another post claims. "There [sic] are not being allowed to dock and unload."
"Probably a good idea to make sure you have enough supplies to last several weeks or a couple of months should the inevitable finally happen," a third post warns. "They will sink the ships and crash the economy if it means bringing the people to their knees."
The ports off the coast of Southern California are some of the busiest in the world, accounting for almost half of the imports into the United States. These ports have seen abnormally high numbers of cargo ships at anchor or drift waiting to unload their cargo since late 2019, when the coronavirus pandemic began.
On September 25, there were a record-breaking 161 vessels in port — the normal number of vessels in port before the pandemic was around 60, according to data from the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which operates the vessel traffic service for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
It’s true that there is an abnormally high number of ships waiting to unload their cargo in Southern California. There are 140 total ships in port at the Los Angeles and Long Beach Ports, according to the Marine Exchange’s most recent figures. Most of these vessels are container ships waiting for a spot to open up in the docks so they can unload.
But this backup is not part of a "manufactured supply chain halt" or deliberate attempt to stop shipments like some people are claiming online.
Experts say that one of the biggest reasons for the pile-up in ships is a shift in consumer spending habits as folks spend more time at home.
"Consumers have shifted their spending from services to goods during the pandemic, and supply chains are struggling to keep pace," said Jeffrey Michael, executive director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at University of the Pacific. "The ports in Southern California are actually moving record levels of containers, but they haven’t been able to keep up with increased demand.
Shipping experts say that there is a peak customer order season that starts with back to school shopping in September and lasts through holidays in December. The ports can usually handle that surge in shipping containers coming to unload their cargo. But last year things were different due to COVID-related disruptions and labor shortages, according to Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California.
"We had a peak season that was greater than normal a year ago and they haven't been able to clear it," Louttit said.
That means that the ports were already backed up when this year’s peak season arrived, and now more boats are coming in to deliver goods for this peak season, adding on to that back-up.
What’s more, the increased capacities of modern shipping containers has further compounded the back-up of ships waiting because it takes more time and labor to unload all of the cargo.
"The ships today are just huge, much bigger than they were 10 or 15 years ago. There's a lot more cargo per ship and they just haven't been able to catch up," louttit said. "When you have more containers, more ships, you have less capacity in the goods movement system."
As for the claim that the boats are being told they cannot unload their cargo, Louttit says that is not accurate.
"‘Allowed’ would imply that there is some kind of entity saying you can't come in," Louttit said. "Nobody's saying that. The port is just too jammed. All the docks or for all the cranes are full and everybody is working at the port capacity that they can."
The only caveat, according to Louttit, has to do with the Covid safety protocols.
"What has happened in some cases with Covid is if the crew has COVID, the captain of the port writes an order to the ship that says you are not allowed to enter port," Louttit says. "You can either go drift, you can go anchor, but you have to do your quarantine."
But these cases are a minority and not responsible for the larger back-up of ships, he said.
Experts say that supply-chain disruptions and some product shortages are to be expected due to the back-up, but do not think it is necessary for people to stock up on essential supplies.
"There could be shortages of some goods as a result of unprecedented demand for certain goods and a supply and distribution system that has been unable to expand fast enough to meet it as Covid recovers," Michael said. "I wouldn’t recommend that people stock up so much as that they put in orders early and expect some delays in fulfillment and higher prices for some high-demand items."
Multiple posts on social media claim there are an abnormally high number of cargo ships anchored off of the California coast. The posts warn that this back-up of ships will lead to nationwide food and supply shortages.
Some of the posts also claim that the ships are "not being allowed to dock and unload" as part of a "manufactured" effort to disrupt the supply chain.
It is true that there is a record-breaking number of ships at anchor in Southern California waiting to unload their cargo. But experts say that the back-up is being caused by labor shortages, holiday buying surges and other COVID-19 related issues.
It is false to claim that these vessels are being prevented from unloading their cargo as part of some effort to interrupt the national supply chain.
Experts say that supply-chain disruptions and some product shortages are to be expected as the world continues to navigate a global pandemic, but do not think it is necessary for people to stock up on essential supplies.
We rate this as Mostly False.
MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
Captain J. Kipling Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California & Vessel Traffic Service Los Angeles and Long Beach San Pedro, CA, interview, Sept. 27, 2021.
Jeffrey Michael, executive director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at University of the Pacific, email statement, Sept. 27 2021.
Facebook post, "Y’all better get ready for some serious shortages…" , Sept 19, 2021.
Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. "About LA County."
Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. Accessed Sept
Marine Exchange of Southern California. "Ship report 9/30…" Twitter. Posted 30
Sept 30, 2021.
Towey, Hannah et. al. "An all-time high of 56 cargo ships are stuck waiting off
weeks." Business Insider. 14 Sept 2021.
Trinen, Deborah. "As of Tuesday September 14th, 2021, there are now 56 cargo
freighters…" Facebook. Posted 14 Sept 2021.
Wing, Randy Wingman. "YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT A TOTALITARIAN
REGIME LOOKS LIKE???..." Facebook. Posted 21 Sept 2021.
Read About Our Process
In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.