A wave of optimism in advance of seaway opening

The Great Lakes shipping pipeline will be opening for the season later this month

Optimism abounds for the 2017 navigation seasons on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway.

The seaway will open March 20 followed five days later by the American Soo locks between Lakes Superior and Huron and the 2017 navigation season on the Great Lakes will be fully underway.

While the seaway finished down by 3.1 per cent in tonnage in 2016 compared to 2015, the gap between the two years nar- rowed during the final months as traffic picked up. The revival in the North American economy has continued albeit cautiously into 2017.

Terence Bowles, president and CEO of the Canadian Seaway Management Corp., said, “All the signs are very encouraging. Canada and the United States are heading for growth rates of two to three per cent and Europe should manage one per cent or better.”

“We expect positive growth over the year,” Craig Middlebrook, deputy administrator of the U.S. Seaway Development Corp. said. “We have more reasons to be optimistic this year than we’ve had recently.”

Both men point to hefty stocks of grain waiting to be exported and little ice on the Great Lakes this year to delay the ships. On top of that, international iron ore prices have risen to levels that justify exporting from the U.S. mines in Michigan and Minnesota. The ratification of the Canada-Europe trade deal in Ottawa and Brussels could boost the flow of Trans-Atlantic traffic later this year.

If the shipping industry needs additional encouraging economic signs, it could take heart from the latest statistics from the American Association of Railroads. For the week ending Feb. 18, the 13 U.S., Canadian and Mexican railways reported total weekly traffic was up 7.6 per cent from the same point in 2016. For the first seven weeks of 2017 traffic was 3.2 per cent above last year. Canadian railroads reported cumulative rail traffic volume was up 7.4 per cent for the period compared to 2016.

The Port of Thunder Bay recorded its busiest December ever loading Canadian grain in domestic and ocean-going vessels. It was a similar situation in the American grain ports as shipments increased by 21 per cent during 2016.

Last year, the seaway opened on March 21 and closed on Dec. 31, a navigation season of 286 days that tied the record first established in 2008 and matched in 2013 for the longest navigation season. Bowles said the opening date is always constrained by the need to perform maintenance and upgrades on seaway facilities during the winter.

While ice coverage on the lakes in late February had dropped below 10 per cent, there was enough snow during the winter in the Great Lakes region to ensure chart datum if not higher water levels during the season.

Bowles said in addition to grain and ore, other bulk commodities including salt as well as liquid bulk shipments should increase this year. Then there’s the possibility that infrastructure spending in Canada and the United States might generate the need for raw materials, cement and steel.

Mike Broad, president of the Shipping Federation of Canada, said traffic on the Seaway-Great Lakes “should be up a bit.” Growing economic activity in the United States should increase the demand for imported steel and there’s plenty of grain to trans- port to overseas customers.

Bruce Burrows, president of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, said, “Obviously, it’s too early to tell how things will fare in 2017 but we’re particularly encouraged by the fact that there is a large carry-over of Prairie grain for potential export.”

The strong improvement during the last quarter of 2016 was due to Canadian ships “back in full service delivering iron ore pellets from U.S. Great Lakes ports to the Port of Quebec for transshipment overseas. The grain program was very strong in November and December.

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