‘High highs, low lows’: Great Lakes-Seaway ports ride out pandemic

Wind turbine components

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System carried an impressive amount of cargo in 2020 despite COVID-19 limitations. Overall tonnage for the navigation season, which ran from March 25, 2020 to Jan. 15, 2021, was only down 1.7 percent compared with 2019 for U.S. and Canadian ports that use the waterways. 

How was that possible?

“Despite the incredible challenges of the pandemic, Great Lakes-St. Lawrence shipping demonstrated tremendous resiliency in 2020,” said Bruce Burrows, president and CEO of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, an Ottawa-based group that represents more than 130 industry stakeholders in the United States and Canada. “Our ships never stopped moving, safely delivering essential food, fuel, power and materials needed to keep going during one of the worst health and economic crises in modern history.”

Burrows said the chamber’s Trusted Partners program helped members align their best practices for safety and enabled good communication between ship operators, pilots, ports and marine suppliers “to ensure efficient and safe ship-to-shore interactions.”

The St. Lawrence Seaway announced that cargo shipments totaled nearly 38 million metric tons in 2020, almost in line with 2019. Burrows said the pandemic’s economic impacts varied depending on the type of cargo.

“Ports with strong grain volumes have been able to make up for declines in other cargo volumes,” he said. Fertilizers, cement and steel slabs did well in 2020, and wind turbine shipments were particularly strong at U.S. Great Lakes ports. But shipments of some construction materials, petroleum and iron ore took a heavy hit before rebounding later in the year, Burrows said.

Representatives of the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. agreed that cargo diversification was key to keeping ports busy, and they confirmed Burrow’s assessment of top-performing cargoes in 2020. In a year of “high highs and low lows,” Port Milwaukee Director Adam Tindall-Schlicht said his port saw exports of Wisconsin-grown agricultural commodities increase by nearly 82 percent and overall tonnage rise 5 percent compared with 2019. 

“One of the chief commodities here is imported salt from Goderich in Ontario, and we’ve seen a return to more normal activity in the domestic and international salt trade on the Great Lakes,” he said. “Our production and handling of cement products saw an increase in 2020 by about 3 percent. We associate that with Wisconsin’s ongoing shovel-ready construction projects.”

Tindall-Schlicht said two major highlights for the Seaway system have been the strength of U.S.-Canadian agricultural exports and the wind turbine trade, especially at the Port of Duluth-Superior and the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor. “(That) has been a real success story,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons we think the Seaway system is showing signs of strength despite the economic duress associated with the pandemic.” 

Port Milwaukee has weathered the pandemic well by being proactive. “From Day 1, we were working with our customers and our tenant partners to make sure they had the latest public health guidance so that there was no commercial operational disruption related to COVID-19,” Tindall-Schlicht said. He added that a significant investment in international marketing and advertising for Port Milwaukee has proven fruitful, and that state support has made a huge difference.

“We have a very unique program in our state called the Harbor Assistance Program in which the Wisconsin Department of Transportation provides supplemental grant funding to allow commercial ports to target huge infrastructure projects year after year,” he said.

At a time when infrastructure throughout North America is in a “state of degradation,” Tindall-Schlicht noted that Port Milwaukee has continued to invest in upgrades, securing federal and state funding to build a $35 million export terminal.

The Lake Carriers’ Association (LCA), which represents the U.S.-flag Great Lakes fleet, also noted a heavy investment — about $87 million — by shipping companies to upgrade vessels in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. The shipyard work includes replacing steel plating, engine overhauls, navigation equipment updates and conveyor belt repairs and replacements.

“Maintaining our vessels is a lot easier than replacing them,” said Eric Peace, operations and communications director for the LCA. 

Peace echoed how critical it was to be proactive to keep vessels moving on the Great Lakes throughout 2020.

“At the start of the pandemic, there was no Coast Guard guidance right away. We ended up engaging with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and local health departments to make sure they understood we were not cruise ships, that we were shipping raw materials,” Peace said. “As it progressed, we put together response and prevention plans, informing mariners that we were going to be asking them where they’ve been, giving them questionnaires, taking their temperatures — all the precautions we could so as not to introduce (the coronavirus) onto a ship.”

Those efforts paid off, said LCA President James Weakley. There were no confirmed COVID-19 cases on LCA-enrolled vessels last year, a feat he attributed in part to early distribution of useful plans.

“I think the real credit for success goes to our captains, chief engineers and chief cooks. They incorporated the prevention plans into their safety culture,” Weakley said. “Our hope for 2021 is a healthy return of our sailors after the winter layup and an economic recovery to keep our ships sailing.”

Burrows said he believes grain shipments will be strong again in 2021 “as there is still a lot of carryover from the last harvests, and grain was stored at port terminals over the winter and is waiting to go.” Success for the year depends on the pace of economic recovery in both the United States and Canada, he said, and how governments handle vaccination distribution and economic stimulus measures. 

“It will be important for essential workers in the marine sector — such as crewmembers and those involved with ship-to-shore interactions — to be part of the prioritization process for vaccines,” Burrows said. “These workers are just as much ‘frontline’ workers as those in the trucking, rail, airline and other essential services (who) have ensured our supply chains continue to operate.”

Peace said the arrival of COVID testing, which wasn’t readily available for much of 2020, was “good news” for the LCA for the coming year. Tindall-Schlicht said Port Milwaukee also was optimistic about 2021, having seen a significant uptick in international cruise activity on the Great Lakes before the pandemic that he thinks will resume.

He also praised the “Highway H2O” initiative that allows Great Lakes ports to collaborate and internationally market the system as one. This allows cargo vessels to target multiple ports — “a winning equation for many years.”

By Professional Mariner Staff