Ports & Terminals

Port of Mar del Plata: too idle, too crowded

Few spaces for containerships as removal of abandoned vessels suffers never-ending delays

On September 5, the container terminal operator of Mar del Plata, TC2 (Terminal de Contenedores 2), called a press conference to denounce the alarming situation of the port’s congested waterfront.

A total of 53 ships remained obstructing the quayside in various locations, each of them on-site for at least one year. Some of the vessels were not only abandoned; they had become shipwrecks, with their hulls grounded or partly submerged after up to 20 years moored alongside.

The shocking, almost post-apocalyptic spectacle represents “not only a terrible operational impairment to a congested port, but also a potential environmental risk”, said a report put forward by TC2 at the time.

It was the result of two months of detailed research, based on daily ground and aerial photographs, AIS data and minutes published by the Fishing Federal Council of Argentina.

The report and press conference were the culmination of a dispute between TC2 and the local port authority, the Mar del Plata Regional Port Consortium (Consorcio Portuario Regional de Mar del Plata).

The Consortium should be responsible for keeping the port free of abandoned ships and has repeatedly promised to start clean-up efforts through a scrapping plan since 2017, but no material progress has been made so far. More recently, a series of deadlines for the removal of the first batch of vessels were missed this year.

Almost two months after the report presentation, “everything remains the same. We see neither progress nor any perspective of solution”, says Emilio Bustamante, director at TC2.  

The dire situation hit headlines locally and abroad, being picked up by various news sources.

To Clarín, the head of the Consortium, Mr. Martín Merlini, said in September that the port “might be congested, effectiveness is missed, but it’s being solved with the scrapping plan”. However, the two vessels that were supposed to be scrapped by the end of that month remain in the same location. The Consortium and Mr. Merlini did not respond to a request for comment from Maritime South until the publication of this article.

Conflict between the Consortium and TC2 has been heating up especially over the last year. TC2 proposed new investments worth US$ 30 million to the port’s infrastructure in exchange of an extended concession period.

“The Consortium and the Buenos Aires Province government responded that there is no room in the port for those activities since the fishing industry occupies the necessary spaces. We know that’s not the case, that the reality is that the port is obstructed by inactive and abandoned ships”, remarks Bustamante.

The Consortium later launched a public tender for the establishment a multipurpose port, but the terms were deemed unfavourable and no contender presented an offer by last April’s deadline.

Mar del Plata remains the most relevant facility for Argentina’s fishing industry, including associated services for fishing vessels such as shiprepair (mainly SPI shipyard) and shipbuilding (Contessi shipyard). However, other commercial operations are still far from their full potential.

A berth was separated for cruiseships, but no such vessels are willing to call the port without proper infrastructure. Another berth is dedicated to tankers, though it’s size limits capacity to small handysize vessels. Dry bulk cargo was originally the focus of a grain terminal located at wharf number 3, the same that was offered in April’s tender. The structure remains abandoned for more than ten years.

Besides fishing, the port’s future might depend on general cargo, containers and offshore support operations. For the latter, new business perspectives are emerging following oil and gas exploration activities in waters just off the coast of Mar del Plata. On October 3, the seismic vessel ‘BGP Pioneer’ called the city for bunkering and supplies, a glimpse of a new demand that could fit well into the port’s infrastructure.

The situation for general cargo and containers is more nuanced. Currently, trucks travel as much as 400 km to Buenos Aires ports or even to Brazil with local export shipments, especially fish. This cargo could be captured by Mar del Plata, but currently only one service calls TC2: Maersk Line. However, according to Bustamante, “there is enough cargo for 1 or 2 additional shipping lines, but what is lacking is a decision by the state to follow the development of foreign trade through the Port of Mar del Plata”.

Another shipping line that operated in Mar del Plata, MSC, decided to withdraw in August after replacing the geared ship that served the region for a gearless vessel. This was no surprise, since the project submitted by TC2 in 2018 included shore cranes, a piece of equipment still not available at the port. The consequence of MSC pulling out was that instead of 7 to 8 monthly calls, now Mar del Plata only gets 3 containerships per month.

Meanwhile, the abandoned vessels “have turned into a trash can where people throw every sort of garbage, that add to the asbestos seen in some of the ships”, says Juan Ignacio Arenas, one of the authors of the September study.

The Port Consortium is reportedly implementing the scrapping plan based on the Argentine Navy’s local slipway. The Mar del Plata Naval base agreed to make it available in order to contribute to clean up efforts. However, the facility is not yet equipped for the job following various setbacks, including an overall lack of safety and unavailability of proper equipment for pulling and cutting the vessels ashore.

Finally, on top of it all, lies the Argentine economical crisis and 2019 elections. The head of the Consortium is under the political influence of the Buenos Aires province government. Since incumbent María Eugenia Vidal lost the October 27 elections to contender Axel Kicillof, it should be expected that a new administration to the Mar del Plata port authority will soon be appointed.

Amidst a cemetery of neglected ships, an arena of institutional conflict and a display of continued inaction, container shipping in Mar del Plata continues to be a bright, but missed opportunity.

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