port of deluth

A ship at the Port of Duluth. Photo: The Great Lakes Seaway Partnership

Great Lakes Shipping’s 2021 Navigation Season Off to Strong Start

Mike Schuler
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May 19, 2021

American and Canadian ports in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System have marked a strong start to the 2021 navigation season with total tonnage up nearly 4 percent, according to the Great Lakes Seaway Partnership representing ports on both sides of the border.

The 2021 season, which opened March 22 with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, has had 416 vessel transits totaling a little over 4 million metric tons through April, representing a 3.7 percent increase compared to shipments through the same period last year.

Through April, iron ore shipments through the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway reached 703,000 metric tons, nearly a 7% increase compared to shipments of iron ore during the same time in 2020.

“We are pleased to see a solid start to the 2021 Great Lakes Seaway System navigation season, with overall tonnage tracking with the 5-year average. Inbound shipments of steel and project cargo and iron ore exports are keeping our ports busy early in the season,” said Craig H. Middlebrook, Deputy Administrator of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation.

The Port of Duluth-Superior floated nearly 4.2 million short tons of cargo through April, representing a 48% increase over the 2020 pace and a 23% improvement on the five-season average. The strong numbers there are contributed to domestic dry bulk shipments, with outbound domestic tonnage doubling the 2020 pace. Coal and coke shipments started strong, totaling more than a million short tons, while iron ore tonnage also surged to more than 2.7 million short tons, up 21% yoy and 19% above the five-season average. Domestic grain tonnage also surpassed the 2020 pace, notching an 18 percent gain. It was also a good start for inbound cargoes like cement and limestone, with tonnages significantly exceeding the five-season average.

“It’s been a very good start to what we expect will be a bounce-back season for the Port of Duluth-Superior after the COVID-induced lows of 2020,” said Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. “Along with total tonnage, our vessel count is also up dramatically, and we’re certainly hoping that trend continues throughout the season. It’s encouraging to see the high level of activity in our harbor and throughout the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System.”

The strong start to Great Lakes shipping’s 2021 navigation season follows below-average ice coverage on the Great Lakes this past winter.

More highlights provided by the Great Lakes Seaway Partnership:

Port of Toledo

The Port of Toledo is off to a solid start for the 2021 shipping season. “We’ve already handled over 1 million tons of iron ore, which is a good indication that steel demand will be strong in 2021,” said Joseph Cappel, VP Business Development for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority. “We are excited about the 2021 shipping season for several reasons. The Cleveland Cliffs hot briquetted iron facility will be in full production this year, which will drive substantial vessel activity at the Ironville terminal. Also, our new massive Liebherr 550 mobile harbor crane recently arrived and is being assembled, giving us additional capabilities for bulk and project cargo handling. We are also rebuilding the dock wall at Midwest Terminals and making improvements at the Toledo Shipyard. We’ve been looking forward to these milestones for some time and are excited that the projects are coming to fruition.”

Port of Monroe

Paul C. LaMarre III, Port Director, Port of Monroe, said, “The Port of Monroe is off to as strong of a start as ever as cargo was flowing across our docks at the turn of the new year and has been moving ever since. In addition to handling the staple bulk cargoes that have sustained the Port in recent years, the Port’s Terminal Operator, DRM Terminal Services, has worked to book new steel and wind cargoes by vessel and rail. The Port continues to be proud of the resilience of our entire Port team and very much looks forward to contributing to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway as a whole in all that we do.”

Port of Green Bay

The shipping season is now fully underway, with early tonnage totals for the Port of Green Bay steadily ramping up. The season officially began on March 19, and the combined tonnage total for March and April was 132,423. That’s 40 percent lower than the same time last year, when the season got off to a very fast start.

“Every shipping season is different, and you really can’t predict what will happen during the rest of the season based on the first six weeks,” said Dean Haen, Port of Green Bay Director. “Shipments are booked far in advance; mines and manufacturers are producing the commodities, and shipping lines are scheduling the logistics. The combination of these factors contribute to tonnage moved through the Port of Green Bay. Demand for commodities is up, prices are up and availability of those commodities are challenged. The Port tonnage numbers will go up, and we will have a better picture of the shipping season in the months ahead.”

“Our target each year is to reach or top 2 million tons for the shipping season,” added Haen. “2019 was a record year for us, and 2020 was also strong, despite the pandemic. I am optimistic that shipping will pick up as the year goes on.”

The leading cargo categories for March and April were limestone (49,934 tons), cement, (33,483 tons) and salt (26,341 tons). A total of 11 vessels have moved through the Port so far this year, including nine lakers and two Canadian vessels.

Port of Erie

“The 2021 shipping season is off to a quick start, with the first vessel arriving through the Seaway mid-April. We are looking forward to several more shipments of wind energy blades prior to the seaway shutdown in December,” said Brenda A. Sandberg, Executive Director, Erie-Western Pennsylvania Port Authority.

Port of Ogdensburg

“Despite the 2020 COVID pandemic, the Port of Ogdensburg saw a 4 percent increase in cargo over the 2019 shipping season. So far, we have received shipments of road salt earlier this season than expected. We also anticipate intermodal grain shipments to remain strong for 2021,” said Steve Lawrence, Executive Director, Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority.

Ports of Indiana

“The Ports of Indiana-Burns Harbor has had a solid first quarter with an increase of more than 10 percent tonnage year-over-year to date,” said Ports of Indiana CEO Vanta E. Coda II. “We believe this year’s project cargo and bulk commodities will be strong and see steel coming back to more normalized levels. With the economy getting stronger, 2021 looks to be a good bounce-back year for our customers.”

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