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All those cargo ships sitting in the San Francisco Bay are going away, maybe forever

All those cargo ships sitting in the San Francisco Bay are going away, maybe forever
Andrew Chamings Jan. 12, 2022

The sight of a dozen or more container ships, each the length of the Salesforce Tower, sitting in the bay chugging diesel has become the norm for Bay Area residents and those driving over the Bay Bridge.

That's about to change, after the organizations responsible for the movement of the 200,000-ton ships in and out of the Port of Oakland launched new rules this week.

Previously, ships joined a queue on approaching the coast and anchored in the bay while awaiting their docking space. As of Monday, the vessels will instead receive an assignment time from the port and remain 50 miles off the coast while they wait, outside of a new zone named the the "Safety and Air Quality Area," leaving the bay waters open.

"The overall goal is to reduce congestion, to promote maritime safety and minimize air quality impacts," Port of Oakland spokesperson Roberto Bernardo told SFGATE over the phone. He said that on Wednesday, there are ten ships anchored in the Bay awaiting berth at the port. "The numbers should go down in the coming days, you'll see a dramatic decrease," he said.

The new off-shore queuing process was designed in a joint effort by the Pacific Maritime Association, the The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association and the Marine Exchange.

"The new process reduces emissions from vessels located near the Bay Area, and allows more space between vessels – an important safety feature during winter storms," The PMSA said in a statement to SFGATE, "The new procedure also enables vessels to slow steam across the Pacific, thereby reducing overall emissions throughout their journey."

"Air quality is a huge issue at all ports," Bernardo said. The Port of Oakland says it has reduced diesel emissions by 86% since 2005, largely through the use of "shore power," meaning the vessels turn off their engines and plug into a 100% carbon-free electric grid when berthed. "When they plug in they actually run on pure solar and wind energy," Roberto said. "The maritime industry has come a long way. The goal is to be an all electric port."

The new queuing system was first implemented in November of last year at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and significantly reduced the vessel backlog in San Pedro Bay during the historic supply chain congestion caused by the pandemic.

“The resounding success of the new container vessel queuing system in Southern California has set the stage for this expansion to the Bay Area,” PMA President and CEO Jim McKenna said in a statement. “This updated system has reduced the number of vessels at anchor near our ports, enabling safer operation for vessels and their crews as well as additional protections for coastal communities.”

The number of container ships at anchor and drifting off the coast around Los Angeles fell to 17 by January, down from 86 when the new process went into effect in November, according to Marine Exchange of Southern California, a nonprofit that tracks the movement of vessels.

The new rules do not reduce the overall number of ships coming into the Port of Oakland. "It doesn't mean there are going to be less ships, it just means they're not going to be anchored in the San Francisco Bay," Bernardo said.

If you don't have a view of the bay right now, this Marine Traffic live map ( show the current number of cargo ships, and all other vessels, in the area.