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Strong late season surge on St. Lawrence Seaway

Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway shipping continued to improve in November fueled by a surge in both Canadian and U.S. grain exports, the latest figures show.  The rush is expected to continue in the final weeks of the season with Canadian domestic fleets booked out and the number of ocean-going vessels currently in the system about 20 per cent higher than the five-year average.

From April 1 to November 30, approximately 32.3 million tonnes of cargo moved through the St. Lawrence Seaway. While overall cargo shipments remain down 6.6 per cent, that is an improvement from the 10 per cent decrease recorded in the spring.

Grain exports, including both Canadian and U.S. products, have been the enduring bright spot throughout the season offsetting significant declines in other commodities – with the total grain through November now hitting 10.9 million tonnes, up 23 per cent over 2019.  Year-to-date shipments of iron ore (-13%), dry bulk (-15%) and liquid bulk (-36%) remain down.

“Canadian grain has been in high demand all year, and the increases in U.S. grain shipments over the last few months has contributed to the burst of activity this fall. Looking at the figures of salties (ocean vessels) and domestic carriers in the water, December will certainly be busy,” said Terence Bowles, President and CEO of The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation.

Another positive sign for the supply chain is the extension of the Welland Canal season to January 8, which is part of a five-year pilot project.  Canadian ship operators will be using this time for final deliveries of salt, iron ore and grain for manufacturing, food production and municipal customers.  “Having the Welland Canal opened longer will bring more business and assist our customers in smoothing out their supply chain before the system closes for winter,” Mr. Bowles added.

Julie Lambert, Vice-President, Commercial for Montreal-based Canada Steamship Lines, said: “Our entire fleet of ships is extremely busy this fall. Demand for grain and salt has been robust throughout the year, but we’ve recently also seen a sharp increase in demand for all commodities on the Lakes as our customers build up their inventories before the end of the year.”

She added: “As we look ahead to 2021, we’re cautiously optimistic. We expect our fleet to be fully booked and are seeing strong demand for grain shipments at the start of the season. We also expect to see greater market stability and improved economic conditions next year, as companies have implemented effective measures to deal with COVID-19 and, with the arrival of vaccines, we expect to see a decrease in infection rates.”

The size of Canada’s wheat harvest, the second largest on record, bodes well for the start of the shipping season in the spring.

“Conditions are ripe for a solid start to the 2021 season, as Prairie grain yields were strong again this fall, and demand for Canadian grain remains high, particularly in Europe,” said Tim Heney, President and CEO of Thunder Bay Port Authority.

The Port of Thunder Bay was visited by over 30 Canadian lakers and 20 salties in November, with another strong lineup coming in December. This will result in a 20-year cargo tonnage high at the Port, as November shipments were once again above normal with more than 1 million tonnes of grain loaded at its elevators headed for destinations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Thunder Bay anticipates a final overall cargo tally of 10 million tonnes for the first time since 1997, which represents a 14 per cent increase over their 5-year average.

At the WindsorPort Authority, grain continues to surpass all previous records, up 16 per cent over last year with a 17 per cent increase in foreign vessels exporting Canadian grain. Overall tonnage at the Port is down 8.9 per cent, but Windsor Port continues to maintain its recovery from the COVID-19 shutdown in the spring.

The Port of Johnstown is also predicting a great end to the year thanks to a strong Ontario grain harvest, which doubled the amount of grain shipped in November (80,000 tonnes) compared to November 2019 (40,000 tonnes.) Year-to-date the Port has processed roughly 175,000 tonnes of grain, a 20 per cent increase over last year.

In preparation for the winter months, salt supplies were restocked in Johnstown in November. The Port estimates 520,000 tonnes of salt will be offloaded this winter, 100,000 tonnes less than 2019 due to the mild winter last year.

The ports of Hamilton and Oshawa (HOPA) also anticipate a strong finish to the season.

“There was a point this past spring when things were looking rather bleak, and our tonnage was off by as much as 30 per cent,” explains HOPA Ports’ President & CEO Ian Hamilton. “Since then, we’ve clawed our way back, and are closing out the season on a decidedly optimistic note.”

The Port of Oshawa is on track for its best year ever, with cargo at this smaller port exceeding 600,000 metric tonnes for the first time, driven by strong trade in fertilizer, grain, steel and cement.

“The Port of Oshawa is a strategic gateway to the Greater Toronto regional market,” said Hamilton. “As construction activity fully resumes in 2021, the Port of Oshawa will be making an important contribution to rebuilding our economy by efficiently delivering the materials needed to build our towns and cities.”

At the Port of Hamilton, while steelmaking and petroleum products remain lower this year, strong showings in commodities like grain, fertilizer, finished steel, salt and gypsum have made up the balance. The Port expects the final tonnage total will be in the neighbourhood of 10 million tonnes by season close. (Photo Paul Beesley)