GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) - The Port of Gulfport has big plans for
expansion, but even at its current size and with a slumping
economy, the port already has put itself in a position to be the
benefactor of a future business boom.
A shift in trade patterns began several years ago when many Gulf
Coast ports tweaked operations and drifted away from a specific
type of cargo, choosing instead to handle mostly containerized and
break-bulk cargo - goods that can be boxed or fastened to a pallet
and usually need to be lifted from a vessel by crane.
Meantime, industry executives say another method of shipping is
slowly being squeezed out and a few smaller ports along the Gulf
are seizing the opportunity.
Some ports, such as Houston and Tampa, Fla., still handle a
variety of cargo types, but many major ports are decreasing their
capacity for "ro-ro" cargo - goods that can be rolled on and
rolled off a vessel. This has allowed smaller ports, such as
Gulfport and Galveston, Texas, to put a heavy emphasis on that
"One of the things that maritime shipping companies look for
when they look at ports is what type of cargo a port can handle,"
said Don Allee, executive director of the Port of Gulfport. "We
are at a great advantage because we can do both."
Before Hurricane Katrina the Port of New Orleans handled several
ro-ro vessels, including several calls a month from Wallenius
Wilhelmsen Logistics and National Shipping Company of Saudi Arabia.
WWL has since consolidated its services at Galveston and NSCSA
has moved its ro-ro services to Atlantic ports. Matt Gresham, a
spokesman for the Port of New Orleans, said his port hopes to
eventually bring ro-ro vessels back.
On the other side of Gulfport, the Port of Mobile still handles
ro-ro cargo on occasion; port spokeswoman Judy Adams said Alabama
still markets its port as being capable of handling all types of
"(Mobile) can handle ro-ro cargo without adversely impacting
capacity or capability of handling break-bulk or containers," she
said. "If a ro-ro opportunity presents itself, we accommodate."
Millions of containers enter the United States every year
through terminals in California, but port congestion and labor
shortages in recent years have forced cargo ships to wait in long
lines at major West Coast ports. Many vessels small enough to fit
through the Panama Canal have been diverted to ports in the Gulf of
Experts believe the planned expansion of the Panama Canal, which
would allow next-generation megaships to cross into the Gulf, will
drastically increase business at Gulf Coast ports.
When the canal expansion is complete and cargo begins to pour
in, industry observers believe smaller ports, such as Gulfport and
Galveston, will see a profound jump in demand for roll-on, roll-off
cargo and eventually corner that market.
Allee said Gulfport will soon purchase at least two new cranes
to help strengthen its ability to handle lift-on, lift-off cargo,
or lo-lo. But the port began focusing on the niche of roll-on,
roll-off cargo several years ago with the construction of its first
dock specifically designed for ro-ro vessels in 2004.
Crowley Maritime Corp., one of the port's largest tenants, makes
three calls a week at Gulfport using ro-ro vessels carrying
manufacturing tools, and road-construction and industrial equipment
on the company's North America to Latin America trade route.
Crowley is feeling some effects of the economy. The company's
Latin America service saw nearly a 6 percent drop in southbound
container volume from Gulfport and Port Everglades, Fla., in
October compared with October 2007.
But Crowley's trade routes through Gulfport also rely heavily on
perishable foods - imports shipped in refrigerated containers - and
Crowley executives believe most of their service to Gulfport will
be spared from the current economic crisis.
"It is a global issue, but never in history has there been a
global situation where something wasn't being shipped. "If the
dollar is strong, then typically our import goods should be up, and
most recently the dollar hasn't performed as well as it should, and
consequently our exports are up."
In addition to heavy equipment similar to the cargo on Crowley's
roll-on, roll-off vessels, shipper WWL carries more than 3 million
vehicles per year using a global fleet of more than 60 vessels to
serve 20 different trade routes between five continents. WWL is one
of the largest shippers of ro-ro cargo in the world.
Of those scheduled stops, WWL makes two calls a month at the
Port of Galveston using roll-on, roll-off vessels.
WWL spokesman Jonathan Spampinato said Galveston offers many
advantages that will benefit the company's ro-ro service for years
to come, including dedicated rail access and other capabilities
that are "especially beneficial for project and other
Galveston is still climbing out from under Hurricane Ike debris
but Steve Cernak, executive director for the Port of Galveston,
said the port's ability to handle roll-on, roll-off cargo has