The ships sitting in Puget Sound have been cut to eight from 15 a week after a tentative dockworkers agreement.

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A week after West Coast dockworkers and their employer came to a tentative labor agreement, eight ships are anchored in Puget Sound and thousands of containers are sitting at terminals in Tacoma and Seattle, leaving Washington importers and exporters to wonder how long it will take for business to return to normal.

The exact time is impossible to calculate. The Port of Seattle has said Washington will clear its backlog faster than California — taking maybe two weeks — while union leaders say two months and local companies peg it at three months.

“We can only hope that it will go quicker,” said Bryan Bartelson of Puyallup-based Bartelson Transport, which delivers everything from potatoes to lumber to the Seattle and Tacoma ports.

The agreement came after nine months of negotiations that took a turn on Halloween when dockworkers and their employers began blaming each other for congestion at West Coast ports.

The Pacific Maritime Assocation (PMA), which represents terminal operators and shipping lines at 29 ports along the West Coast, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) agreed on the tentative five-year contract Feb. 20 with the help of U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez.

The deal must be approved by ILWU’s members as well as the PMA. A union vote could come in April, while Washington businesses will still be working to rebound.

Ramping back up

In October, import/export company MacMillan-Piper was moving 1,500 to 2,000 containers in and out of the Port of Seattle each week. Last week, the company managed only 458, but estimates being back up to 861 loads this week.

“Our yard space is pretty much completely at capacity,” said Joey Stivala, accounts manager for MacMillan-Piper, which exports products such as lumber and frozen beef through both Seattle and Tacoma ports. “Our five warehouses are bursting at the seams.”

The number of ships off the Seattle and Tacoma ports decreased to eight from 15 a week ago. Dean McGrath, president of ILWU Local 23 in Tacoma, said the PMA has been hiring full crews for weekdays, nights and weekends.

However, this week terminal operators have been loading many vessels for only one day — instead of four — to get ships back on their normal sailing schedules, Bartelson said.

Additionally, this week companies like Mediterranean Shipping, which uses Terminal 46 in Seattle, has been accepting only empty containers if a company picks up a full one because there are 800 containers sitting on the dock, he said.

Total Terminals International has similar restrictions at Terminal 46 for four other shipping lines, according to its website.

Stivala worries that as word spreads that more ships are loading and unloading each day, exporters across the state and from the Midwest will start sending more product to the Puget Sound, which will add to the backlog.

“A lot of shippers have slowed down their supply chain, and now they are going to ramp back up,” he said.

Customer confidence

News of the possible contract agreement came months too late for Tom Riggan, chief executive of Chelan Fresh, one of Washington’s largest apple exporters. The company missed the big opportunities that come with Chinese New Year and Christmas: when customers couldn’t get everything they needed from him when they needed it, they started buying European apples.

Apples for another customer arrived to India 30 days late and spoiled, and orders to Chile were canceled before arriving because they were already 30 days late, he said. While the port congestion will eventually be cleared up, customer relationships could be strained for years, Riggan said.

“We will never make up what we lost … we gave them opportunity to try a new vendor and a new source,” he said. “Now they have proved themselves as we stubbed our toe.”

Washington’s apple industry has lost $70 million in sales since early November and the Washington State Potato Commission estimates $34 million in lost sales in November and December.

Jason Davenport, owner of Allied Potato in Pasco, said orders for this year’s potato crops are down 20 percent compared to 2014 because his customers lost their confidence in the West Coast shipping industry.

Davenport hopes he can spend the next two months filling orders and regaining some of his customers’ confidence.

“At least because this was cleared up now, we have March and April to follow up,” he said. “We’ll finish out on a good note.”