Nicaragua canal viewed as small threat to Evergreen State’s international trade

State port and trade officials say a new Central American canal through Nicaragua isn’t a major threat to shipping through Washington.

“For the most part the Nicaragua canal won’t divert much cargo away from our ports,” predicted Eric Schinfeld, president of the Washington Council for International Trade. “We’re much more thinking about Canada, the ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert, diverting a significant bit of our business north of the border.”

Port of Tacoma spokeswoman Tara Mattina said the Port of Tacoma and the Northwest Seaport Alliance, a joint effort between the ports of Tacoma and Seattle’s shipping terminals, are focused on nearer competitors.

“From our perspective,” she said, “We’re more concerned about Canada than the Panama or Nicaragua canals. Nonetheless, we’ll be keeping an eye on development there.”

She said the port alliance is concentrating on improving service through the combined facilities of the two ports to retain and attract new business.

The two ports have spent much of the past two years drafting a plan to operate and market their shipping terminals to attract new shippers. The two port commissions recently submitted the alliance operating plan to the Federal Maritime Commission for its approval.

The two historical rivals combined their efforts in an attempt to halt the erosion of container shipping traffic market share handled through the two ports.

In forming the alliance, they cited new competition from Canada, Southern California and the East Coast for stealing their business. The East Coast ports will soon be reached by larger ships through an updated and enlarged Panama Canal. The improved canal is due to open in 2016. The even-larger Nicaragua Canal is slated to open sometime after 2020.

Port of Tacoma Commission President Don Johnson said the Nicaragua canal didn’t come up in the many conversations between the two commissions about forming the alliance.

“It just wasn’t on our radar,” he said.

Don Meyer, Port of Tacoma commissioner, said it doesn’t pay, however, to underestimate the power and expertise of the Chinese to accomplish major infrastructure projects. A Chinese concern is developing and building the new canal.

“Whenever you open a new route for trade,” he said, “you have to be aware of the new competition.”

For Northwest ports, that competition is fairly distant,” he said. “If I were the Panama Canal, I’d be plenty worried.”