Icebreaker gap causes more delays on Great Lakes

(CLEVELAND) – The ice season is over on the Great Lakes but the impacts of insufficient U.S. Coast Guard icebreaking linger, according to the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force. With a defined shipping season of 10 months due to the closure of the navigational locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., which connect Lake Superior and the iron ore mines to the steel mills in the southern lakes, delays to the maritime supply chain have tremendous impacts.

During this year’s ice season, the U.S.-flag Great Lakes shipping industry lost the equivalent of a month due to delays in ice-covered waters. More than 1.6 million tons of cargo carrying capacity was delayed for 679.5 hours, or 28 days, due to ice conditions on Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and in Green Bay, and a lack of Coast Guard icebreakers to meet the needs of commerce.

Bulk carriers ply Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay in March. Great Lakes Maritime Task Force photo

“It amazes me that a cargo container stuck in Chesapeake Bay or in the Suez Canal gets worldwide attention, and that happens on the Great Lakes every year,” said Jim Weakley, president of the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force. “The loss of one day of shipping is tremendous, but a month is devastating. Imagine if highways in the Northern states didn’t have enough snowplows to keep traffic moving during frequent winter storms and sat on the road for a month. … It is unacceptable.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), ice conditions this past winter were “average” to “slightly below average” during the bulk of the icebreaking period. Several ships, including some Canadian-flag lakers, faced perilous journeys through ice-choked waters that nearly forced a vessel aground in the Straits of Mackinac and shutdown waterways. At one point, several vessels were stuck in eastern Lake Superior for more than three days.

With an aging fleet of six 40-year-old small icebreaking tugs and only one heavy icebreaker, the Coast Guard couldn’t keep up. Multiple vessels were shoved near the edge of the navigational channels as ice floes over a foot thick shifted, which lasted until mid-April. At the beginning of the ice season, the Coast Guard lost five icebreakers to engineering casualties just when they were needed most.

“The Coast Guard needs more icebreakers on the Fourth Sea Coast,” said John D. Baker of the International Longshoremen’s Association and vice president of the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force. “We have 237,000 jobs depending on a reliable Great Lakes navigation system. In addition, our sailors deserve to feel safe navigating our waterways regardless of the time of year.”

While progress fixing the icebreaking issue has been slow, it is moving forward thanks to key Great Lakes senators and congressional representatives. Over the past year, both the current commandant of the Coast Guard and the nominee to replace him testified before the Senate Commerce Committee acknowledging the need for another heavy Great Lakes icebreaker.

In addition, the Great Lakes Winter Commerce Act has passed the House in the Coast Guard Authorization Bill, which authorizes full funding for the new icebreaker, mandates transparent and accurate performance measures, and commissions a study by the Government Accountability Office to examine the impacts and needs for additional Coast Guard icebreakers on the Great Lakes.

About Great Lakes Maritime Task Force

The Great Lakes Maritime Task Force, with 74 members, is the largest coalition to speak for the Great Lakes navigation system. Advocating for domestic and international shipping, its members represent labor and management from U.S.-flag vessel operators, shipboard and longshore unions, port authorities, cargo shippers, terminal operators, shipyards, and other Great Lakes interests. The Great Lakes commercial maritime industry supports more than 147,000 American jobs in eight Great Lakes states and generates more than $25 billion in economic activity.

– Great Lakes Maritime Task Force

By Rich Miller