What Is Short Sea Shipping?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2019
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Short sea shipping is the movement of goods by ship without crossing an ocean, usually staying along one continent, such as North America or Africa. It is also known as coastal shipping, a reference to the fact that the ships tend to stay close to the coastline to complete their journeys. In addition to traveling on the ocean, they can also move on inland waters like lakes and canals to bring goods to regions served by these waterways.

The use of short sea shipping varies around the world. In Europe and Southeast Asia, it is an extremely common shipping method. Without moving out over deep water, ships can bring goods to a variety of locations, and those goods may never need to pass over the roads. This can limit congestion on the roadways and provides a mechanism for moving people as well as cargo, because coastal shipping can include ships that also accept passengers for short trips.

This can be an excellent option for moving domestic freight if it is going between two towns close to the shoreline, like Los Angeles and San Francisco, or New York and Miami. It is possible to transfer freight from large ocean vessels to smaller boats for short sea shipping right in port, without the need to load trucks or train cars. The speed of shipping can vary, as some ships travel faster than others. It is also possible to ship internationally between nations on the same continent.


Companies may offer a mix of short sea shipping and other options, or could focus exclusively on this shipping method. The cost for cargo handling usually depends on the size and type. Fragile or perishable goods cost more to ship, and customers can receive discounts for large loads, particularly bulk loads that fill a whole ship. It may be possible to negotiate a special rate on an underladen ship that is eager to add cargo so it can sail with a full load by a particular deadline.

There can be environmental costs as well as benefits to short sea shipping. The carrier's practices can be key to determining if it is more environmentally sound than other shipping methods. Trains tend to be highly efficient, with very low pollution levels, while boats may generate byproducts of combustion, oil spills, and other problems, in addition to disrupting marine organisms. These issues must be weighed by companies considering short sea shipping for their cargo needs if they have environmental concerns.


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