Port of Seattle: Everything you Need to Know

Picture by Documerica for Unsplash

You might not think much of the Port of Seattle, but it is one of the most important ports for US commerce. Located in the Pacific NorthWest, it serves as a crucial entry point to the region as well as a major artery to transpacific trade, as the closest port in distance to the Asian continent. Not to mention that, thanks to its railway connections, it can easily transport cargo to the Midwest and even reach as far as New York—in fact, some 70% of the cargo that arrives at the port is then transported to the Midwest by rail. Despite recent decreases in its handling of cargo, in 2023 it ranked as the 13th largest in North America and 11th largest in the country, as well as the fifth largest in the West Coast.

Given its importance, we at Auba put together a list of the most important statistics about the port and its true impact on the US economy.

Where is the Port of Seattle Located?

The Port of Seattle occupies little over two square kilometers in the northern section of Eliott bay—a short drive north of Downtown Seattle. In total, it has five terminals—with the most recent of them opening in 2024 after five years of upgrades. It is one of 75 ports in the state of Washington and second only to the Port of Tacoma.

Given the geography of Eliott Bay, the port has a natural depth of 600 ft, allowing it to host large vessels of up to 18,000 TEUs

How Many TEUs Can the Port of Seattle Handle?

The specific number of TEUs—a common metric for containers—handled by the Port of Seattle varies year to year. In our most recent report (The State of North American Ports by Auba), we estimated that the port handled over 1.3 million TEUs—although, this number was a statistical estimate given a lack of official reporting from the Seattle Port Authority at the time.

Port of Seattle: Total TEUs Handled Over Time

A bar graph showing the number of TEUs handled by the Port of Seattle between 2018 and 2022

(Data from Auba)

Across time, the port exhibits a slight decrease in the number of TEUs handled, with a mild rebound starting in 2022. Although we estimated, given current trends, that the port of Seattle experienced a positive growth rate of little above 1% in 2023, when looking at the broader period examined, we actually find a contraction. Between 2018 and 2022, the port experienced a growth rate of -10.56% in TEUs handled. 

How Many Tons of Cargo Can the Port of Seattle Handle?

Similarly to the number of TEUs, the total tons of cargo handled by the port of Seattle will vary year to year. However, it is worth noting that this metric reflects a different kind of trade than TEUs. When speaking of TEUs, we are focusing just on containerized trade—namely, the merchandise being transported in a multimodal shipping container. Other forms of cargo such as fuels or chemicals that are not often carried in containers, are left out of such a metric. As such, tons of cargo tends to look at the remainder of trade not brought into the Port of Seattle by conventional containers.

In Auba’s The State of Ports in North America, we were unable to estimate the exact number of historic tons handled by the port of Seattle—this, in great part, since our focus for the report was to better understand containerized trade. However, we did find official information from the Port of Seattle Commission specifying the tons of cargo handled by the port.

In it, we found that the port of Seattle handled over 23.04 million tons in 2023—the most recent year available at the time of writing. This, however, represents a downward trend when compared to previous years. In fact, we found that, between 2018 and 2023, the total tons of cargo handled by the port contracted by 4.52%.

Port of Seattle: Total Tons of Cargo Handled Over Time

A bar graph showing the tons of cargo handled by the Port of Seattle between 2018 and 2022

(Data from  Port of Seattle Commission)

What does the Port of Seattle import?

When looking at containerized trade alone, we noticed that the Port of Seattle has great variance, with the five largest import groups accounting for just 43.3% of all trade. In 2023, 15.7% of imports to the port consisted of furniture. Machinery (10%) followed closely and, Motor Vehicle Parts (8.2%) took the third spot in terms of imports.

Imports by Category in the Port of Seattle (2023)

A pie chart showing the main imports to the port of Seattle in 2023

(Data from the Port of Seattle)

How Efficient is the Port of Seattle?

Efficiency is difficult to measure when it comes to ports the likes of Seattle. A good approximation, albeit centered around containers, is to look at the number of containers that arrive empty at a port and compare them to the number of containers that arrive full of cargo. With this logic in mind, efficiency can be defined as the best use of containers ensuring they rarely arrive empty to the port. Then, a highly efficient port is one where shipping companies can easily replace cargo inside of their containers without having to transport empty containers elsewhere.

To measure this value, we designed a metric called the “inefficiency rate” which is just the ratio of empty over full containers handled by a port in a year. A score close or above to 1 in this metric implies that the port is inefficient, handling the same or greater number of empty TEUs as compared to full TEUs. A score closer to cero, on the other hand, represents a more efficient port where empty containers represent a minor occurrence.

In the case of Seattle, we found a low degree of inefficiency with a score of just 0.12 in 2021—the most recent year for which data is available. For reference, the largest port in the US—the port of Los Angeles—has an inefficiency ratio of 0.45.

Inefficiency Ratio Over Time: Port of Seattle

A line graph showing the inefficiency ratio for the port of Seattle between 2018 and 2021

(Data from Auba)

How does the Port of Seattle Compare to Other Ports? 

The port of Seattle remains crucial to the US and the Americas as a whole, handling 2.12% of all containers and 1.71% of all tons of cargo in North America. As a result, we found that the port is the 13th largest in the region and eleventh largest in the US, comparable to the ports of Montreal in Canada and the Port of Jacksonville in Florida. However, it is worth noting that Seattle is far from being one of the three largest ports in North America and its total TEUs ion 2023 only accounted for about 15.4% of those handled by the port of Los Angeles.

Top 30 Ports in North America by TEUs Handled (2023)

A bar graph showing the top 30 ports in North America by the TEUs handled in 2023

(Data from Auba)