Seaway opening on an upbeat note

St. Lawrence Seaway officials are optimistic last year’s four per cent surge in traffic was no fluke as the export route gears up for a March 22 opening.

A late-season surge in grain exports from Western Canada lifted the seaway traffic to 38.9 million tonnes of cargo for the 2012 season, a haul that bested the Seaway Management Corp’s (SMC) forecast by 300,000 tonnes.

Overall the waterway finished 1.4 million tonnes ahead of 2011’s result of 37.5 million tonnes. And it accomplished that with 4,083 vessel transits, 144 lower than in 2011, a sign that ships are moving more cargo.

“Canadian traffic has rebounded since the low point of 2009. The North American economy is growing at a steady pace and conditions do appear reasonably certain going forward. However, there are so many variables and as always some uncertainty,” Raymond Johnston, president of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, said in an interview.

Most discussions he’s heard about seaway prospects “suggest there’s nothing to be pessimistic about at this time,” he said. Iron ore and coal should continue flowing to China as they did last year. There’s still plenty of Canadian grain left from the 2012 harvest.

President Obama’s State of the Union address comments about a revved up American infrastructure program and talk of a renewed infrastructure building plan in Canada could translate into more cargo moving on the lakes.

Mike Broad, president of the Shipping Federation of Canada, says reports that the U.S. economy is picking up steam make him think there could be a modest improvement in tonnage. That could include more steel imports. The biggest uncertainty is grain exports from both Canada and the United States because of ongoing worries about a repeat of last summer’s drought.

Glen Nekvasil, vice-president of the U.S. Lake Carriers Association, notes that his members are still struggling from a drop in cargo last year.

However, the No. 1 issue this year will be the water levels. “We have lost four feet of draft in lakes Huron and Michigan and the St. Mary’s River and that means our ships have to carry 18 per cent less cargo to enter most Great Lakes ports.”

In its January report, the Canadian Hydrographic Service says water levels on the lower lakes and in Montreal are below their all-time average for this time of year although still above the level of Chart Datum. Lake Superior and Lake Michigan-Huron are below their all-time average for this time of year and are below the level of Chart Datum.

The service said shipping lines have to be especially cautious in high winds during low water periods “when water levels can rise or fall significantly in a short period of time.”

Meanwhile, about eight per cent of the Great Lakes were ice covered in late February, which is below the average of 12 per cent since 1980, but above last year, when only five per cent of the lakes were ice covered, the Canadian Ice Service reports.

Meanwhile, the International Joint Commission says the organization hasn’t decided yet whether to recommend remedial measures to Ottawa and Washington to reverse falling water levels on the Great Lakes. It has to report on the findings of its Upper Great Lakes study board, which examined the water level issue during 2012.

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