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Latest figures: Great Lakes-Seaway shipping impacted by COVID-19 but well positioned for rebound as U.S. businesses reopen

While St. Lawrence Seaway cargo volumes decreased during the past two months due to economic shifts related to COVID-19, industry leaders said the binational trade and transportation corridor is ready to play its part in the economic recovery efforts in the coming months.

Overall St. Lawrence Seaway tonnage from March 15 through May 31 totaled 7.7 million metric tons, down 10 percent compared to the same time period in 2019. Road salt and project cargo shipments such as wind turbine components have remained strong throughout the last two months. However, cargo volumes of steel-related materials, construction materials, and petroleum declined as automotive plants and work sites closed and people stayed home during COVID-19-related emergency measures.

“Great Lakes-Seaway shipping has continued to get the job done during these challenging times, safely delivering vital grain, renewable energy supplies and manufacturing inputs for domestic needs and world markets,” says Bruce Burrows, President and CEO of the Chamber of Marine Commerce. “Ship operators, ports, suppliers and the Seaway operators have really pulled together to put protective measures in place for our workers and the public and to ensure our transportation system has continued to operate throughout the pandemic without interruption or delay for our customers. Moving forward, Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway shipping is ready to support ongoing efforts to restart the U.S. economy.”

Dry bulk cargo shipments on the Seaway, which include cargoes like stone, cement among others, were down 5 percent. However, one of the first areas of improvement expected in cargo volumes are construction materials as pandemic-related restrictions continue to be lifted throughout the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region.

Year-to-date general cargo shipments via the St. Lawrence Seaway, including project cargo like wind turbine components and aluminum, were up 3.5 percent.

The Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor has received 15 shipments of wind turbine components over the last two months. “We expect at least 10 more shipments of U.S.-built wind tower sections moving by deck barge from Manitowoc, Wisconsin down to Burns Harbor. These will be coupled with nacelles, hubs and blades being produced in Europe that are arriving into Burns Harbor via the Seaway,” says Ian Hirt, Port Director for the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor.  “We are also expecting several vessels containing components for gas-powered electrical generation stations that are being constructed in the area.  These are emblematic of a shift in energy production in the region away from coal-powered electricity.”

Tonnage at the Port of Toledo was down 12 percent in May compared to May 2019 which is attributed to COVID-19, flooding and poor grain harvest last fall.

“Our grain shipments are down significantly, but we’re hoping a good 2020 harvest will help us make up for some of the loss at the end of the season,” says Joseph Cappel, VP of Business Development for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority. “The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically impacted construction and manufacturing and the associated demand for raw material and petroleum products. We expect that as the economy continues to recover, the recovery will be reflected in our tonnage numbers.”

The bright spot for Toledo in May was general cargo, which is up over 225 percent from last year. “We have handled a tremendous amount of aluminum at the general cargo facility so far in 2020,” adds Cappel. “Smelters continue to produce aluminum and the Port of Toledo is a strategic location where metals can be stored and rapidly deployed into the marketplace when conditions are right.”

At the Port of Duluth-Superior, general cargo and grain had strong showings, but other tonnage categories were impacted by the pandemic.

“May was an especially difficult month in the Port of Duluth-Superior, with effects of the coronavirus slowing the tonnage pace in each major cargo category,” says Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. “Through May 31, total tonnage trailed the 2019 pace by 28.5 percent, led by a sharp decline in coal tonnage due primarily to diminished demand from power plants on the lower Great Lakes. Iron ore, the port’s perennial tonnage leader, also slipped in May, ended the month 6 percent behind last season’s pace. On a brighter note, grain tonnage finished May almost 26 percent ahead of the 2019 pace and 39 percent ahead of the five-season average. General cargo tonnage also registered an increase, closing the month approximately 9 percent ahead of last season and 11.5 percent above the five-season average.”

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