2023 Mid-Year Trade Growth Experienced at Port of Vancouver

An aerial view of the Port of Vancouver’s south shore. File photo via POV.

With growth in some sectors and softening in others, cargo volumes through Canada’s Port of Vancouver increased by 11% in the first half of 2023 compared to the same period last year, data released by the port in late September show.

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s 2023 mid-year statistics, released Sept. 25, show a total of 75.9 million metric tons (MMT) of goods moved through Port of Vancouver terminals between January 1 and June 30, 2023, compared to 68.6 MMT for the same period in 2022.

This is the second largest mid-year volume of cargo ever handled by Port of Vancouver terminal operators (the record of 76.4 MMT was set in 2021) and a new record for the bulk sector at 55.5 MMT, following a significant rebound in grain volumes as Prairie farmers moved last season’s bumper crop to international markets through the Pacific gateway.

The mid-year cargo volumes are released annually and include data from the first six months of the year through the end of June. As such, these figures do not reflect any cargo impacts resulting from the July 2023 labor disruption when International Longshore Union Canada conducted a strike for more than two weeks.

The strike was called off when a new contract between labor and employers was reached during the second half of the month.

Port data also show that grain shipments were up 106% overall compared to the same period last year, increasing sharply because this year’s bumper crop season was preceded by a drought-affected season.

The increase included a 121% increase for bulk grain and 28% increase for containerized grain. Canola volumes were up 124%, while bulk specialty crops such as lentils increased 89%. Bulk wheat was up 144%, with 17% of the wheat exported through the port going to Africa as world markets continue to settle following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Japan and Algeria were the top-two export markets for Canadian wheat, according to port authority data.

The automotive and cruise sectors also showed significant increases over 2022 during the first half of 2023. Automotive was up almost one-third, following strong terminal throughput in early 2023, as supply chain and production issues eased, bringing the sector into line with traditional volumes after several years of volatility.

The cruise sector remains on course for a record season, with passenger numbers up 82% year-to-date June compared to the same period last year. Almost 500,000 passengers passed through the Canada Place cruise terminal at the Port of Vancouver from April 1 to June 30, 2023, and there were 134 cruise ship visits.

“We saw average cruise ship occupancy rates reach 96% in June for the first time since 2019—marking a full return to pre-pandemic passenger levels and helping the local cruise sector continue on its way towards a record year in terms of passengers and cruise ship visits,” said Victor Pang, CFO and interim president and CEO at the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, the federal agency that oversees Canada’s trade through the Port of Vancouver.

The news was not so good when it came to container volumes through the Port of Vancouver however: they fell in the first half of 2023, in line with trends being seen throughout North America, as a slowing economy meant fewer imports. Overall container volumes were down 14% compared to the first half of 2022, as imports dropped 18%.

The decrease was partially offset at the Port of Vancouver by recovering containerized exports, with outbound laden up 14% as Canadian exporters took advantage of lower container freight rates and increased availability post-pandemic.

“The Port of Vancouver—like many major container ports in North America—experienced a drop in containerized imports throughout the first six months of 2023 due to a cooling economy and well-stocked retailer inventories,” Pang explained.

Volumes for other commodities remained steady with fertilizer down 1% and coal down 2%. Foreign breakbulk was 15% lower overall, following a slowing Canadian economy, lower forestry exports and many Canadian exporters shifting their method of handling to containers as pandemic disruptions resolved.

“Coming off a challenging year, we’ve seen drops in some sectors—reflecting a softening economy—and encouraging rebounds in other key commodities such as grain, auto and cruise,” Pang said. “The 2023 mid-year statistics reinforce the foundational strength of being North America’s most diversified port.”