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June was record month for Great Lakes shipping industry

Mike Simonson, Wisconsin Public Radio

This June was one of the best in years for the Great Lakes shipping industry, with carriers making up for lost cargo from April and May when ice cover slowed down lake traffic.

The numbers year-to-date are still lower than where they usually are, largely because of the tough spring. U.S.-flagged Great Lakes tonnage is down 17 percent from a year ago, and overseas traffic on the St. Lawrence Seaway is down 10 percent.

June nevertheless has been something of a comeback. The 10.5 million tons of Great Lakes cargo that was shipped that month is the most that’s been recorded since before the Great Recession. Seaway numbers show the similar trends.

U.S. Seaway Deputy Administrator Craig Middlebrook said after tripping out of the gate, Great Lakes shipping could catch up.

“We will very much be close ... if not maybe even a little ahead of last year’s 37 million tons,” said Middlebrook.

Grain shipping is up 38 percent, and “general cargo” — a category that largely encompasses manufacturing materials — increased 44 percent in June.

Middlebrook said this is not just pent-up demand from the slow start; rather, he said, this is a reflection of a stronger world economy.

“As goes the international economy or the domestic economy, so goes the seaway,” said Middlebrook. “If you look at the composition and numbers of traffic, we usually tend to be a little ahead of economic trends, (though) not always.”

In terms of individual ports, shipping to Duluth-Superior is down 17 percent overall, but June easily surpassed May in coal and iron ore. June tonnage was up 28 percent in Green Bay and, Middlebrook said, Cleveland had a 23% increase in international tonnage.

“Cleveland is cool again, very much so,” said Middlebrook. “And I’m not just talking about LeBron.”