It takes just six days for a cargo ship to make the trip from New Bedford to the Port of Tuxpan, in Veracruz, Mexico. That is just about right for sending New Bedford fish to Mexico, or to bring fresh Mexican produce to Massachusetts.
On Wednesday, New Bedford officials signed a “sister port” agreement with Tuxpan, hoping to turn the city into a significant import-export hub, create hundreds of jobs, expand imports, and open up Mexican markets to Massachusetts companies.
The agreement could also lead to less expensive shipments of fruits and vegetables from Mexico to Massachusetts. A nonstop, all-water route “offers cheaper service in a similar time frame as trucking the cargo would,” said Ed Anthes-Washburn, acting port director in New Bedford.
With the agreement in place, officials will now try to bring together distributors and shipping companies to get goods flowing between both ports. “We’re trying to get the right companies in the same room so that the deals can be made,” said Anthes-Washburn.
The opportunity seems ripe. Tuxpan is the closest port to Mexico City and the 20 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area. The port and the city will be connected by a new highway by the end of the year.
As for New Bedford, it is the number one fishing port in the United States as measured by catch value — more than $306 million in 2011 — and already hosts extensive cold storage facilities that can be used for processing shipments of perishable goods, such as produce. The two ports plan to encourage business from Mexican produce exporters who want to get into the New England and eastern Canadian markets.
Mexico could ship crops such as limes, watermelons, bell peppers, and tomatoes to New Bedford, helping to create hundreds of jobs, according to Anthes-Washburn. Just one weekly cargo ship filled with vegetables takes 50 people three 24-hour days to unload and deliver to distributors because the produce is on pallets, not in containers, and has to be handled carefully, he said. Related employment in trucking and warehousing could swell the new jobs per ship to more than 100, he said.
“The end result of this agreement will definitely be jobs,” said New Bedford Mayor Jonathan F. Mitchell. The city already imports fresh clementines from Morocco for Canadian markets, with each vessel representing $200,000 for the city in services and labor, he said.
During the next few months, Anthes-Washburn and Alfredo L. Sanchez Hevia, his counterpart in Tuxpan, will be linking producers and buyers in both countries to make the service viable. Among the local products that backers of the agreement think could sell in Mexico: apples, cranberries, and seafood.
The water route is dramatically simpler and less expensive than an overland route, according to Pierre Bernier, stevedoring manager at cold storage company Maritime International Inc. and one of the key architects of the agreement.
“Overseas shipping saves about $1,500 per truckload,” he said.
“A refrigerated ship can carry about 200 truckloads of cargo, so the savings in freight expense is about $300,000 per shipload. Once you understand the economics, it’s a very compelling scenario.”
Shipping also avoids the long wait and the costs of crossing the border between Mexico and the United States. Most loads transfer to new trucks at the border, Bernier said, which adds significant time and money to the process.
It will take about a year to line up enough producers and distributors in Mexico and the United States and make the shipping arrangement a reality, Bernier said.
Bob McGowan of the New England Produce Council, a nonprofit trade association for distributors and retailers of fresh fruit and vegetables, said that it is too early to say whether the water route will cut the cost of produce for local consumers.
But the arrangement could increase agricultural imports from Mexico and lead to the introduction of new varieties of fruits and vegetables for the Spanish-speaking market, he said.
“The infrastructure to get the Mexican product to the Northeast efficiently is a challenge,” McGowan said. “This agreement could really make a difference in that area. It will be a smoother ride for the vegetables, so to speak.”