and garden beds of suburban America are a major pathway for
diseases and pests. Another vector is wooden packing material
– the crates and pallets that hold goods for shipping.
And America imports a lot of stuff. To get an idea of the vol-
ume of global trade, just Google “tracking the seven seas.” The
You Tube video by major ship tracking company FleetMon com-
presses a week’s worth of global shipping traffic into less than
two minutes. Each ship is a dot of light, merging into veritable
rivers as they move through geographical choke points such as
the Suez Canal, the Strait of Gibraltar, and the Panama Canal,
giving the impression of a freeway at rush hour.
through some two dozen seaports. The country’s busiest East
Coast container port is the Port of New York and New Jersey.
On the West Coast, the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long
Beach handle huge volumes of containerized goods from China
and the rest of Asia.
The gargantuan volume of international goods coming into
the U.S. in shipping containers guarantees that only a tiny frac-
tion can be checked for forest or agricultural pests or diseases.
It isn’t just the trade but where trade goods originate that
poses a challenge. U.S. trade with China has risen dramatically
over the last 30 years, to $482 billion in 2015. That means a huge
This Asian longhorned beetle larvae (right) was discovered in wood packaging material. Wood shipping material must now be treated to prevent stowaways like this from
entering the U.S. Still, inspections are essential – at left, a CBP inspector chips away
at wood pallets to look for wood-boring pests.
Much of the world’s goods travel these days in shipping
containers, those ubiquitous steel boxes, with some 20 million
in use worldwide. In 2015, 7. 9 million TEUs, or 20-foot
equivalent units – the measuring standard for metal shipping
containers – came into U.S. East Coast ports alone, up more
than 12 percent from 2014, according to the shipping association BIMCO. The World Shipping Council put total 2014 U.S.
imports at 19. 6 million TEUs. By some estimates, inbound
container traffic could top 20 million TEUs for 2016. There are
more and more container ships on the high seas, and they’re
getting bigger. West Coast ports routinely handle ships bearing
14,000 containers; East Coast ports handle ships bearing 10,000,
and are gearing up to handle bigger ships expected after a newly
expanded Panama Canal opened in June.
The U.S. has 360 commercial ports – airports, border
crossings, seaports – that handle upwards of $900 billion worth
of goods a year, with the bulk of container shipping coming in
increase in the possibility of importing Asian insects and diseases; it’s
probably no coincidence that two of
the most destructive imported forest
pests in recent memory – the Asian
longhorned beetle and the emerald
ash borer – came from China.
Gary Lovett noted that the forests of the eastern and north-central
Arrayed against this tsunami of shipping containers is a long,
thin line of agricultural inspectors from Customs and Border
Protection (CBP), an arm of the Department of Homeland
Security, and from the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service (APHIS), a branch of the Department of Agriculture.
CBP inspects cargo at ports, airports, and road crossings;
APHIS sets plant protection policies, inspects live plants, and is
responsible for quarantines and eradications.
Customs and Border Protection declined our requests to
interview inspectors and watch them at work going through
containers entering the Port of Boston. They gave no reason. A
CBP spokesperson pointed us to information made public on the
According to CBP’s own figures, on a typical day last year, the
agency processed over a million passengers; more than a quarter-million privately owned vehicles; and more than 72,000 truck,
rail, and sea containers. The agency has nearly 60,000 employees
– including almost 23,000 officers and over 20,000 border patrol
agents – but only 2,413 “agriculture specialists.” On a typical
day, agents seize 470 pests and 4,548 materials for quarantine,
including plants, meat, animal by-products, and soil.