A port is a maritime facility comprising one or more wharves or loading areas where ships load and discharge cargo and passengers. Although usually situated on a sea coast or estuary, ports can also be found far inland, such as Hamburg, Manchester and Duluth; these access the sea via rivers or canals. Because of their roles as ports of entry for immigrants as well as soldiers in wartime, many port cities have experienced dramatic multi-ethnic and multicultural changes throughout their histories.
Ports are extremely important to the global economy; 70% of global merchandise trade by value passes through a port. For this reason, ports are also often densely populated settlements that provide the labour for processing and handling goods and related services for the ports. Today by far the greatest growth in port development is in Asia, the continent with some of the world’s largest and busiest ports, such as Singapore and the Chinese ports of Shanghai and Ningbo-Zhoushan. As of 2020, the European busiest passenger port is the Port of Helsinki in Finland. Nevertheless, countless smaller ports do exist that may only serve their local tourism or fishing industries.
Ports can have a wide environmental impact on local ecologies and waterways, most importantly water quality, which dredging, spills, and other pollution can cause. Ports are heavily affected by changing environmental factors caused by climate change as most port infrastructure is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise and coastal flooding. Internationally, global ports are beginning to identify ways to improve coastal management practices and integrate climate change adaptation practices into their construction.
Whereas early ports tended to be just simple harbours, modern ports tend to be multimodal distribution hubs, with transport links using sea, river, canal, road, rail and air routes. Successful ports are located to optimize access to an active hinterland, such as the London Gateway. Ideally, a port will grant easy navigation to ships and will give shelter from wind and waves. Ports are often on estuaries, where the water may be shallow and may need regular dredging. Deep water ports such as Milford Haven are less common but can handle larger ships with a greater draft, such as super tankers, Post-Panamax vessels and large container ships. Other businesses such as regional distribution centres, warehouses and freight-forwarders, canneries and other processing facilities find it advantageous to be located within a port or nearby. Modern ports will have specialised cargo-handling equipment, such as gantry cranes, reach stackers and forklift trucks.
Ports usually have specialised functions: some cater mainly to passenger ferries and cruise ships; some specialise in container traffic or general cargo, and some play an important military role for their nation’s navy. Some third-world countries and small islands such as Ascension and St Helena still have limited port facilities, so ships must anchor off while their cargo and passengers are taken ashore by barge or launch (respectively). In modern times, ports survive or decline, depending on current economic trends. Liverpool and Southampton ports were once significant in the transatlantic passenger liner business in the UK. Once airliner traffic decimated that trade, both ports diversified to container cargo and cruise ships. Until the 1950s, the Port of London was a major international port on the River Thames, but changes in shipping and the use of containers and larger ships have led to its decline. Thamesport, a small semi-automated container port (with links to the Port of Felixstowe, the UK’s largest container port), thrived for some years but has been hit hard by competition from the emergent London Gateway port and logistics hub.
In mainland Europe, it is normal for ports to be publicly owned so that, for instance, the ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam are owned partly by the state and partly by the cities themselves. Even though modern ships tend to have bow-thrusters and stern-thrusters, many port authorities still require vessels to use pilots and tugboats for manoeuvering large ships in tight quarters. For instance, ships approaching the Belgian port of Antwerp, an inland port on the River Scheldt, are obliged to use Dutch pilots when navigating on that part of the estuary that belongs to the Netherlands.
Ports with international traffic have customs facilities.
Types of Ports
The terms “port” and “seaport” are used for different types of facilities handling ocean-going vessels, and river port is used for river traffic, such as barges and other shallow-draft vessels.
A seaport is a port located on the shore of a sea or ocean. It is further categorized as a “cruise port” or a “cargo port”. Additionally, “cruise ports” are also known as “home ports” or a “ports of call”. The “cargo port” is also further categorized into a “bulk” or “break bulk port” or a “container port”.
Cargo ports are quite different from cruise ports because each handles very different cargo, which must be loaded and unloaded by various mechanical means. Bulk cargo ports may handle one particular type of cargo or numerous cargoes, such as grains, liquid fuels, liquid chemicals, wood, automobiles, etc. Such ports are known as the “bulk” or “break bulk ports”. Ports that handle containerized cargo are known as container ports. Most cargo ports handle all sorts of cargo, but some ports are very specific about what cargo they handle. Additionally, individual cargo ports may be divided into different operating terminals which handle the different types of cargoes and may be operated by different companies, also known as terminal operators or stevedores.
Cruise home port
A cruise home port is where cruise ship passengers board (or embark) to start their cruise and disembark the cruise ship at the end of their cruise. It is also where the cruise ship’s supplies are loaded for the cruise, including everything from fresh water and fuel to fruits, vegetables, champagne, and any other supplies needed. “Cruise home ports” are very busy places during the day the cruise ship is in port because off-going passengers debark their baggage and on-coming passengers board the ship in addition to all the loaded supplies. Cruise home ports tend to have large passenger terminals to handle the large number of passengers passing through the port. The busiest cruise home port in the world is the Port of Miami, Florida.
A smart port uses technologies, including the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI), to be more efficient at handling goods. Smart ports usually deploy cloud-based software as part of the process of greater automation to help generate the operating flow that helps the port work smoothly. Currently, most of the world’s ports have somewhat embedded technology, if not for full leadership. However, thanks to global government initiatives and exponential growth in maritime trade, the amount of intelligent ports has gradually increased. This latest report by business intelligence provider Visiongain assesses that Smart Ports Market spending will reach $1.5 bn in 2019.
Port of call
A port of call is an intermediate stop for a ship on its sailing itinerary. At these ports, cargo ships may take on supplies or fuel and unload and load cargo, while cruise liners have passengers get on or off the ship.
A fishing port is a port or harbour for landing and distributing fish. It may be a recreational facility, but it is usually commercial. A fishing port is the only port that depends on an ocean product, and the depletion of fish may cause a fishing port to be uneconomical.
An inland port is a port on a navigable lake, river (fluvial port), or canal with access to a sea or ocean, allowing a ship to sail from the ocean inland to the port to load or unload its cargo. An example of this is the St. Lawrence Seaway, which allows ships to travel from the Atlantic Ocean several thousand kilometres inland to Great Lakes ports like Toronto, Duluth-Superior, and Chicago. The term “inland port” is also used for dry ports.
A warm-water port (also known as an ice-free port) is one where the water does not freeze in winter. This is mainly used in the context of countries with mostly cold winters where parts of the coastline freeze over every winter. Because they are available year-round, warm-water ports can be of great geopolitical or economic interest. Such settlements as Dalian in China, Murmansk, Novorossiysk, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and Vostochny Port in Russia, Odessa in Ukraine, Kushiro in Japan and Valdez at the terminus of the Alaska Pipeline owe their very existence to being ice-free ports. The Baltic Sea and similar areas have ports available year-round beginning in the 20th century thanks to icebreakers, but earlier access problems prompted Russia to expand its territory to the Black Sea.
A dry port is an inland intermodal terminal directly connected by road or rail to a seaport and operating as a centre for the transshipment of sea cargo to inland destinations. In addition to their role in cargo transshipment, dry ports may also include facilities for storing and consolidating goods, maintenance for road or rail cargo carriers and customs clearance services. The location of these facilities at a dry port relieves competition for storage and customs space at the seaport itself. A dry inland port can speed up cargo flow between ships and major land transportation networks, creating a more central distribution point. Inland ports can improve the movement of imports and exports, moving the time-consuming sorting and processing of containers inland away from congested seaports.
Ports environmental issues
Ports and their operation often cause environmental issues, such as sediment contamination and spills from ships. They are also susceptible to larger environmental issues, such as human-caused climate change and its effects.
Every year 100 million cubic metres of marine sediment are dredged to improve waterways around ports. Dredging, in its practice, disturbs local ecosystems, brings sediments into the water column, and can stir up pollutants captured in the sediments.
Invasive species are often spread by the bilge water and species attached to the hulls of ships. It is estimated that over 7000 invasive species are transported in bilge water worldwide daily. Invasive species can have direct or in-direct interactions with native sea life. Direct interaction such as predation is when a native species with no natural predator suddenly prey on an invasive specie. In-direct interaction can be diseases or other health conditions brought by invasive species.
Ports are also a source of increased air pollution both because of the ships and land transportation at the port. Transportation corridors around ports have higher exhaust and emissions, and this can have related health effects on the local communities.
Water quality around ports is often lower because of direct and indirect pollution from the shipping and other challenges caused by the port’s community, such as trash washing into the ocean.
Spills, pollution and contamination
Sewage from ships and leaks of oil and chemicals from shipping vessels can contaminate local water and cause other effects like nutrient pollution in the water.
Climate change and sea level rise
Ports and their infrastructure are very vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels because many are in low-lying areas designed for status quo water levels. Variable weather, coastal erosion, and sea level rise all put pressure on existing infrastructure, resulting in subsidence, coastal flooding and other direct pressures on the port.
There are several initiatives to decrease the negative environmental impacts of ports. The World Port Sustainability Program points to all of the Sustainable Development Goals as potential ways of addressing port sustainability. These include SIMPYC, the World Ports Climate Initiative, the African Green Port Initiative, EcoPorts and Green Marine.
World’s major ports
The largest port in Australia is the Port of Melbourne.
According to ECLAC’s “Maritime and Logistics Profile of Latin America and the Caribbean”, the largest ports in South America are the Port of Santos in Brazil, Cartagena in Colombia, Callao in Peru, and Guayaquil in Ecuador, and the Port of Buenos Aires in Argentina.
Port State Control
Port State Control (PSC) is the inspection of foreign ships in national ports to verify that the condition of the ship and its equipment comply with the requirements of international regulations and that the ship is manned and operated in compliance with these rules.
Many of IMO’s most important technical conventions contain provisions for ships to be inspected when they visit foreign ports to ensure that they meet IMO requirements.
These inspections were originally intended to be a backup to flag State implementation, but experience has shown that they can be extremely effective. The Organization adopted resolution A.682(17) on Regional cooperation in controlling ships and discharges, promoting the conclusion of regional agreements. A ship going to a port in one country will normally visit other countries in the region. Therefore, it can be more efficient if inspections can be closely coordinated to focus on substandard ships and avoid multiple inspections.
This ensures that as many ships as possible are inspected but simultaneously prevents ships from being delayed by unnecessary inspections. The primary responsibility for ships’ standards rests with the flag State – but port State control provides a “safety net” to catch substandard ships.
Nine regional agreements on port State control – Memoranda of Understanding or MoUs – have been signed: Europe and the North Atlantic (Paris MoU); Asia and the Pacific (Tokyo MoU); Latin America (Acuerdo de Viña del Mar); Caribbean (Caribbean MoU); West and Central Africa (Abuja MoU); the Black Sea region (Black Sea MoU); the Mediterranean (Mediterranean MoU); the Indian Ocean (Indian Ocean MoU); and the Riyadh MoU. The United States Coast Guard maintain the tenth PSC regime.
IMO hosted six Workshops for PSC MoU/Agreement Secretaries and Database Managers. The Workshops were funded by the IMO Technical Cooperation Fund and aimed to support regional port State control regimes by establishing a platform for cooperation and a forum for the people involved to meet and exchange ideas and experiences. They also aimed to encourage harmonization and coordination of PSC activities and the development of practical recommendations, which can be forwarded to IMO for further examination by the Organization’s relevant Committees and Sub-Committees.
Port Reception Facilities (PRFs)
IMO has recognized that provision of reception facilities is crucial for effective MARPOL implementation, and the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) has strongly encouraged the Member States, particularly those Parties to MARPOL as port States, to fulfil their treaty obligations on providing adequate reception facilities.
In March 2006, MEPC 54 emphasized the importance of adequate reception facilities in the chain of implementation of MARPOL and stated that the policy of “zero tolerance of illegal discharges from ships” could only be effectively enforced when there were adequate reception facilities in ports. Therefore the Committee urged all Parties to MARPOL, particularly port States, to fulfil their treaty obligations to provide reception facilities for wastes generated during the normal operation of ships. The Committee also agreed to develop a port reception facility database (PRFD) as a module of the IMO Global Integrated Shipping Information System (GISIS) . The PRFD was designed to allow the Member States to update the Database via a log-in password and to allow the public to access all the information in the Database on a view-only basis. The Database went live to the public on 1 March 2006.
Action Plan to tackle the inadequacy of port reception facilities
In October 2006, MEPC 55 approved an Action Plan to tackle the alleged inadequacy of port reception facilities – seen as a major hurdle to overcome to achieve full compliance with MARPOL. The Sub-Committee developed the Plan on Flag State Implementation (FSI) to contribute to the effective implementation of MARPOL and to promote quality and environmental consciousness among administrations and shipping.
The Plan contained work items aimed at improving the provision and use of adequate port reception facilities, including work items relating to reporting requirements; provision of information on port reception facilities; identification of any technical problems encountered during the transfer of waste between ship and shore and the standardization of garbage segregation requirements and containment identification; review of the type and amount of wastes generated on board and the type and capacity of port reception facilities; revision of the IMO Comprehensive Manual on Port Reception Facilities; and development of a guide to good practice on port reception facility providers and users. Concerning regional arrangements, in March 2012, MEPC 63 adopted, by resolution MEPC.216(63), the amendments to MARPOL Annex V, which provides that Small Island Developing States (SIDS) may satisfy the relevant requirements of reception facilities through regional arrangements when, because of those States’ unique circumstances, such arrangements are the only practical means to satisfy these requirements.
As part of the work on the Action Plan, a standard Advance Notification Form was developed to enhance the smooth implementation and uniform application of this requirement, thus minimizing the risk of a ship incurring a delay. Also, a standard Waste Delivery Notification form was developed to provide uniformity of records worldwide. Also, under its work on the Action Plan, FSI developed the Guide of good practice on port reception facility providers and users, which provides guidance and easy reference to good practices related to the use and provision of port reception facilities, as well as a list of applicable regulations and guidelines.
In March 2018, MEPC adopted the MEPC.1/Circ.834/Rev.1 Revised Consolidated Guidance for port reception facility providers and users, which consolidates in a single document the Guide to good practice for port reception facility providers and users (MEPC.1/Circ.671/Rev.1) and four other circulars related to port reception facilities (MEPC.1/Circ.469/Rev.2, MEPC.1/Circ.644/Rev.1, MEPC.1/Circ.645/Rev.1 and MEPC.1/Circ.470/Rev.1).
- Asariotis, Regina; Benamara, Hassiba; Mohos-Naray, Viktoria (December 2017). Port Industry Survey on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation (PDF), OECD (2011-02-17). Braathen, Nils Axel (ed.). Environmental Impacts of International Shipping: The Role of Ports.
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- Walker, Tony R. (2016). “Green Marine: An environmental program to establish sustainability in marine transportation”. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 105 (1): 199–207. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2016.02.029. PMID 26899158.