By Muyu Xu and Shivani Singh
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's top container ports are loosening the backlog of cargoes on their docks as workers return to their jobs after coronavirus travel curbs that kept them away and jammed up global supply chains have been eased.
The flu-like epidemic, which originated in the city of Wuhan, an inland logistics hub in Hubei province, has killed more that 2,700 and infected over 78,000 in China alone, and caused massive port congestion due to labour shortages caused by city lockdowns across the country.
China is the largest container cargo handler - processing around 30% of global traffic or around 715,000 containers a day in 2019 - and the virus clampdown impacted supply chains of everything from sneakers and machine parts to technology components and food items.
(Graphic - Container ship congestion in China's Outer Pearl River Delta, https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/7/8733/8714/ContainerCongestionPearRiverDelata.png)
Executives from U.S. poultry processor Sanderson Farms Inc <SAFM.O> said on an earnings call on Thursday that operations at China's ports were slowly getting back to normal and most of its shipments have been delivered. The company has shipped or received orders from Chinese buyers for about 18 million pounds of chicken products since Beijing lifted a ban on imports of U.S. poultry late last year.
The average wait time for container vessels at Zhoushan <601018.SS> in southern China - the third-largest container port in the world by annual handling capacity - spiked to more than 60 hours in the week of Feb. 11-17, when travel curbs on workers returning from the prolonged Lunar New Year holiday forced ports to operate with skeleton staffing.
(Graphic - China's Zhoushan port starts to revive business as virus curbs ease, https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/7/8728/8709/Zhoushan.jpg)
That was around 15 hours longer than the week before the holiday, and nearly 20 hours more than the average in early January before the travel restrictions, according to Shanghai International Shipping Institute (SISI) data.
But turnaround times at Zhoushan and other ports are starting to improve as more container crane operators, customs officers, tugboat pilots and other key logistics links slot back into place.
(Graphic - Chinese ports saw fewer container cargoes amid virus outbreak, https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/7/8725/8706/port.jpg)
"The turning point has arrived... We are seeing that port congestion has eased and logistics start to revive," said Xu Kai, director of the Shipping Information Research Institute at SISI.
A shortage of truck drivers to ferry containers in and out of the port has caused crucial bottlenecks.
The city of Ningbo, which includes Zhoushan, has 24,000 registered container truck drivers, 95% of whom come from other regions, according to the Ningbo-Zhoushan port authority.
According to the port authorities, the city had only 800 truck drivers working as of Feb. 12, not enough to handle normal port throughput.
After port authorities offered food and accommodation support for returning drivers, and chartered buses to bring them back, Ningbo reported nearly 7,000 truckers back at work by Feb. 21.
Processing rates at Zhoushan surged as a result, with up to 13,235 twenty-foot-equivalent unit (TEU) containers clearing the port on Feb. 22, compared to only 5 TEUs on Feb. 16, according to SISI data.
While processing rates remain well below the port's daily average of just over 75,000 TEUs in 2019, the improved flow is being noticed.
"We have seen much less logistic stress since last week as ports in southern China started to resume operation," said a manager at the port of Yingkou in the northeastern province of Liaoning.
(Graphic - Map of China's main container ports by volume in 2019, https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/7/8741/8722/ChinaContainerports.png)
Some ports have even managed to surpass year-ago processing rates in an effort to clear the backlog.
Shanghai's port of Yangshan, the biggest deepwater container port in China, cleared 59,800 TEUs on Feb. 20, exceeding the average daily volume in 2019 of 54,200 TEUs, the port said.
Chinese ports are also seeing fewer vessels divert to other destinations because of the backlog, with 61 container vessels redirected from China last week, down from a peak of 144 vessels in early February.
(Graphic - Fewer container vessels skipped over China amid falling new virus cases, https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/7/8726/8707/vessels.jpg)
(Reporting by Muyu Xu and Shivani Singh in Beijing, Gavin Maguire in Singapore and Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Alistair Bell)