Hidden in a scenic, sheltered river in Cornwall in the southwest of the UK, there is a sight that shows just how bad the state of the world economy has become. "The Fal Estuary is the barometer of world trade," said Captain Andy Brigden, Harbor Master of Carrick who is responsible for the Fal Estuary. "When the Fal is empty of ships, trade is buoyant. When it's full, as it is now, things are tough".
The Fal Estuary has seen similar gluts before, during the Great Depression and the troubled economies of the 1960s, 1980s and as recently as the 1990s.
German ship-owner Claus-Peter Offen says the current glut is unlikely to change anytime soon, because of the severe downturn in trade and major over-capacity in the shipping industry. Offen predicts that one-fourth of the world's fleet will be laid up by 2011, and world trade will not recover to early 2008 levels until 2014.
"As soon as a vessel leaves (the Fal), another vessel replaces it," Captain Brigden says. "Some of the departing ships are lucky and find a cargo to deliver. Others are scrapped. Because of the drop-off in trade, many of these ships that are scrapped are not even a third of the way through their working lives."
According to Captain Brigden, car carriers and container ships have been badly hit. These vessels make up the majority of ships in the estuary.
"Basically what's happening is we are buying and selling fewer cars. So that is why we have car carrying ships here. We're buying less goods from China, and that is why we have container ships here."
Yet, for the Fal Estuary community, things aren't all bad. The glut in ships has brought a small boost to the local economy. Harbor authorities charge ship-owners thousands of dollars each month for laid-up vessels. Claus-Peter Offen says that this boost is going to continue for sometime yet.
- Ed Head