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Imports at Philadelphia port at all-time high in January

Cargoes were up 20 percent in January at the Philadelphia port, and containerized freight in 20- and 40-foot metal containers was up 34 percent, the best month ever, port officials said.

Imports increased 5.4 percent across all the nation's ports in January on higher shipments from Europe and China, said the research firm Panjiva, which tracks commercial shipments worldwide. In Philadelphia, the biggest increases were in goods from Chile, Panama, and Peru, said Christopher Rogers, an analyst with the firm.

"It's a lot of factors," including the strong U.S. dollar and the improving economy, said Eric Holt, whose family runs Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in South Philadelphia. The terminal has added several shipping services in the past year.

In August, with the long-awaited Panama Canal expansion completed, Mediterranean Shipping Co. (MSC) began a freight route to Philadelphia hauling grapes, blueberries, other fruit, and cargoes from Chile and Peru, business that used to go to Baltimore and Newark, N.J.

The new "Panamax" ships, so named because they fit through the larger set of Panama Canal locks, are the largest cargo ships ever to come up the Delaware River.

Since it began in February 2016, a new ocean route from the Gulf of Mexico has brought 100 to 150 containers a week directly to Philadelphia carrying Samsung dishwashers and refrigerators, sugar, and Corona beer.

At the Packer Avenue terminal, the fruit company Fyffes began shipping bananas, plantains, and pineapples in January from Costa Rica and Colombia. The fruit previously came on pallets, known as "break bulk" cargo, to Pier 82.

The new business on SeaLand, a carrier of the Maersk Group, prompted other distributors, including Walmart and Oppenheimer Group, to begin shipping their fresh produce here, said Holt.

The Philadelphia port handled 50,152 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs), a standard measure for container cargo, last month, compared to 36,813 TEUs in January a year ago, said Sean Mahoney, marketing director for the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, which owns 15 piers and terminals on the Delaware River.

The Packer Avenue terminal handled 29,598 "lifts" in January, compared with 21,926 a year earlier. A lift is the taking off or putting on of a ship container and is a different measure from  cargo tonnage.

Cocoa-bean shipments were up 58 percent in the Philadelphia port in January, paper products rose 10 percent, and autos were up 33 percent.

The increased volume has meant more work for longshoremen and laborers in the warehouses. "Man-hours were close to all-time highs in January," said Tom Holt Jr., president of Holt Logistics.

Not every cargo is up. Steel and project cargo, which are large, odd-size pieces of equipment such as boilers and generators, were down. "It's a mixed bag. Wood pulp is up a bit; steel is slightly down," said Robert Palaima, president of Delaware River Stevedores, which provides longshoremen labor at Tioga Marine Terminal in Port Richmond and ports in Camden and Wilmington. "I wouldn't infer too much from just one month."

The Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River and Bay said 219 ships arrived at piers and terminals on the Delaware last month, compared with 197 a year earlier and 185 in January 2015. In January, 199 ships brought imports to the river, compared with 185 in January 2016, said Paul R. Myhre, the Maritime Exchange's director of operations.

"Philadelphia is doing a good job getting additional container business from the west coast of South America, some Mexican business, and European services," said John Martin, a national port consultant based in Lancaster. "Baltimore and New York business are both growing because of the Asian markets."

Imports from Peru are expanding "very rapidly," Mahoney said. Two of Peru's largest freight forwarders visited the Philadelphia port last month. "They anticipate the Peruvian trade will grow by another 20 percent going into next year."

The MSC ships from Chile and Peru average 250 to 300 containers a week during the Chilean fruit season from December to May, which has helped attract "dry cargoes," such as wood products, Eric Holt said, adding, "This is all volume that used to be in Baltimore and Newark." The port has a new imported-rice account from India and white-cement shipments from Egypt. Volumes of Fiji water, which used to run 6,000 to 8,000 containers a year, are on track for 10,000 to 12,000 containers this year, he said.

"People are sending their fruit and their goods here because they are getting a better return," Holt said. "Our dollar is very strong vs. the Chilean peso, the Mexican peso, the South African rand. When they get paid in dollars, it makes sense for them to come here."