Maritime traffic jam grows outside blocked Suez Canal

MV Ever Given has been wedged across the entire canal since Tuesday, shutting the crucial shipping waterway in both directions.

Stranded container ship Ever Given, one of the world's largest, is seen on Friday after it ran aground in the Suez Canal [Suez Canal Authority via Reuters]

A maritime traffic jam burgeoned to more than 200 vessels on Friday outside the Suez Canal as dredgers worked frantically to free a giant container ship stuck in the vital waterway and disrupting global shipping.

The blockage was holding up an estimated $9.6bn worth of cargo each day between Asia and Europe, said Lloyd’s List, a shipping data and news company.

Efforts to free it may take weeks and can be complicated by unstable weather, threatening costly delays for companies already dealing with COVID-19 restrictions.

The MV Ever Given, which is longer than four football fields, has been wedged across the entire canal since Tuesday, shutting the crucial shipping lane in both directions.

The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) said efforts to free the ship by tug had resumed following the completion of dredging operations at its bow to remove 20,000 cubic metres of sand.

“The tugging operations require the availability of a number of supporting factors including wind direction and tides, which makes it a complex technical process,” the authority said.

Smit Salvage, a Dutch firm that has worked on some of the most famous wrecks of recent years, confirmed there would be “two additional tugs” arriving by Sunday to assist.

The Suez Canal Authority said it welcomed international offers of help, including one from the United States, although it did not say what was offered.

Oil prices, meanwhile, rose more than 3 percent, shipping data on Refinitiv showed.

The blockage could cost global trade $6bn to $10bn a week, a study by German insurer Allianz showed on Friday.

‘Human error’?

Crews worked through the night using a large dredging machine under floodlights.

But the vessel with gross tonnage of 219,000 and deadweight of 199,000 tonnes has yet to budge, forcing global shipping giant Maersk and Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd to look into rerouting around the southern tip of Africa.

“With the Suez Canal set to remain blocked for at least another day or two, shipping companies are being forced to confront the spectre of taking the far longer route around the Cape of Good Hope to get to Europe or the east coast of North America,” said Lloyd’s List.

Spencer Welch, vice president of oil markets and downstream consulting at IHS Markit, told Al Jazeera that shipping companies are assessing their different alternatives.

“Around 10-12 percent of global shipping goes through the Suez Canal, around 5 percent of oil trade goes through it,” Welch said.

“So there was an initial spike in oil prices by a couple of dollars … [but] that has reversed, and one of the reasons why it has reversed is because of the pandemic.

“Right now it’s not totally critical, there are alternatives, freight routes and alternative sources of supply. Shipping companies are making those decisions, you got a queue of ships, about 40 oil ships waiting to go through, so those companies are thinking, ‘do we wait or do we now reroute?'” he added.

The delay could also result in huge insurance claims by companies, according to Marcus Baker, global head of Marine & Cargo at the insurance broker Marsh, with a ship like the Ever Given usually covered at between $100m and $200m.

Fears of weeks-long blockage

Lloyd’s List said data indicated 213 vessels were now stalled at either end of the canal, which links the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

“Rough calculations suggest westbound traffic is worth around $5.1bn daily while eastbound traffic is worth $4.5bn,” said Lloyd’s.

The canal authority has said between 15,000 and 20,000 cubic metres of sand would have to be removed in order to reach a depth of 12-16 metres and refloat the ship.

If those efforts fail, salvage teams will look to unload some of the Ever Given’s cargo and take advantage of a spring high tide next week to move the vessel.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s seaports adviser, Mohab Mamish, who oversaw the recent expansion of the waterway, said “maritime navigation will resume again within 48-72 hours, maximum”.

Salvage experts already warned the shutdown could last days or even weeks, however.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies