Vancouver port traffic dips in 2022, hinting at economic slowdown to come

Vancouver port traffic dips in 2022, hinting at economic slowdown to come
Cargo containers are unloaded from the Maersk Stockholm ship with gantry cranes while docked at port, in Vancouver, on Tuesday, April 25, 2023. The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority says overall cargo volumes fell by three per cent last year, as the global economy began to show signs of a slowdown.

Cargo volumes at Canada’s largest port fell by three per cent last year as the global economy began to show signs of a slowdown.

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority said Monday that grain and fertilizer exports surged in the second half of 2022, but the gains were not enough to offset a sputtering start to the year caused by a weak 2021 harvest and lingering supply chain problems.

After more than a year of rising container traffic, imports also fell by four per cent amid softer consumer demand and overstocked inventories, said port authority CEO Robin Silvester in a phone interview.

Despite the decrease, he stressed that more capacity is “desperately needed” due to rising trade and population forecasts. A new container terminal that would boost that capacity by nearly 50 per cent, dubbed the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project, received federal cabinet approval last month but still requires various permits to proceed.

“A decline in container volumes that started around December is providing much-needed relief from the surge volumes the port experienced throughout 2021 and much of 2022,” Silvester said in a release.

“However, the underlying story hasn’t changed, with the Port of Vancouver handling its second-highest annual volume of containers on record in 2022.”

Cruises were one area to come roaring back after a two-year hiatus, with a record 307 vessels dropping anchor in the city — though the number of passengers still fell 24 per cent below 2019 levels.

The wave of cruise ships shows no signs of ebbing, Silvester said. Meanwhile a bumper crop in 2022 along with sharply reduced grain supply out Russia and Belarus — fallout from the former’s invasion of Ukraine — point to increased grain shipments this year.

But container traffic in Canada has continued to drop off as Canadians tighten budgets amid higher interest rates.

In March, container volumes across the country dropped nearly 12 per cent year over year, according to the National Bank of Canada.

“It does seem we still have softer consumer spending. And we’re certainly also hearing about congestion in the supply chain with full warehouses in the main population areas around Toronto and Montreal, stock not clearing through the system as quickly as normal,” Silvester said from his waterfront office in downtown Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 1, 2023.

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