The port congestion and skyrocketing fees that ag shippers experienced during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic have largely subsided, according to Federal Maritime Commission Chairman Daniel Maffei. 

Maffei, speaking to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission's Agricultural Advisory Committee at a meeting Wednesday, said these improvements largely came from changing market forces, but that there are still issues that need to be addressed.

"Just because all of this has been reduced doesn't mean that the underlying problems and difficulties have all been solved," Maffei said.

Maffei said the commission has been focusing on holding carriers accountable for "unfair" and "unreasonable" practices that may have been used at the height of the pandemic. The agency's caseload is now roughly triple what it was a few years ago. Additional authorities granted by Congress through the Ocean Shipping Reform Act have also sent a message to ocean carriers that abusing detention and demurrage systems or unreasonably refusing exports "will no longer be tolerated."

But Maffei also said there's still some uncertainty about whether OSRA is enough to solve issues like timing conflicts between multiple cargo carriers that share space on the same vessels. When asked by American Cotton Shippers Association CEO Buddy Allen whether FMC currently has the authority to address the issue, Maffei said it can "probably" offer some solutions. 

But several other factors add "complexity" to the problem, including differing policies at terminals and weather-related delays at sea. Additionally, the FMC is still familiarizing itself with OSRA and the authorities it provides.

"Do we have enough authority?" Maffei said. "I just don't know yet, because I don't know what the solutions are."

The agency also has no jurisdiction over other parts of the supply chain, like railroads or interior facilities. The agency can only fine terminals, carriers and certain "intermediaries," Maffei said. 

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The FMC is limited in its ability to solve intermodal shipping issues, Maffei said. Authorities over non-ocean carrier modes of transportation like railroads may be needed, but not at the FMC, Maffei said. 

"My personal view is not that 'we' need it, it's that somebody needs it," he said.

Maffei said he'd be happy to work with other independent agencies such as the Surface Transportation Board to work on some of these issues, but he questioned whether even they had the authority to solve some issues hindering transport.

"I don't mind the two agencies working together, since we're both independent agencies," he said. "The problem is, I don't think anyone has the authority. So, in that sense, I do think legislation is needed."

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