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Answering shipping's biggest questions as Great Lakes open for business

Will maritime containers take off in Duluth-Superior? How does the invasion of Ukraine impact grain? And what to expect for iron ore, icebreaking in 2022-23.

Shipping containers.
A reach stacker places a shipping container atop a second container on a rail car in Duluth’s Clure Public Marine Terminal on April 20, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / file / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The Great Lakes shipping season begins overnight Friday, ending the two-month winter offseason.

Signs were evident Wednesday as U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers and tugs cleared paths for transiting lake freighters in places such as Whitefish Bay, on the eastern end of Lake Superior, and the port of Duluth-Superior.

The season commences following last season’s rebound from pandemic lows. But it’d be foolhardy to guess what’s in store.

“We don’t do economic forecasts as they’re virtually impossible to predict,” said Eric Peace, vice president for the Lake Carriers Association, which represents U.S.-flag vessels on the Great Lakes.

Peace noted the Russian invasion of Ukraine and continued supply chain disruptions as variables in the upcoming season. He also cited the $1 trillion federal infrastructure law passed in 2021 as something expected to drive traffic between U.S. ports on the Great Lakes.

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“We’ll continue to ship iron ore, limestone, sand, cement and aggregate, and with the federal infrastructure dollars we’re hoping for a strong year,” Peace said.

Coast Guard tugboat travels on water
The U.S. Coast Guard’s Neah Bay travels into the Duluth harbor basin on Wednesday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

The start of the new season brings with it a host of questions.

To answer some of the biggest questions, the News Tribune spoke with Peace, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, and the Specialty Soya and Grains Alliance, based in Mankato, Minnesota, which is watching closely as the local port begins its first full season with an ability to manage waterborne container cargoes at the Port Authority’s Clure Public Marine Terminal. Previously, those cargoes had largely been the domain of Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio, and the port of Oswego, New York, on Lake Ontario.

What does the iron ore trade look like in 2022-23?

“One nice thing is that the iron ore supply chain was never broken,” said Port Authority Executive Director Deb DeLuca, while noting some production disruptions at the mines themselves.

The port of Duluth-Superior saw 20.4 million short tons of ore shipped in 2021-22 — marking the second time in four years the port eclipsed the 20-million ton mark, something the port last did in the 1990s.

“We had a good year last year,” DeLuca said, noting that blast furnace utilization rates on the lower Great Lakes continue to be above 80%. “Iron ore should have a pretty decent season — that’s my one bold prediction.”

Why should a person track Ukraine, Russia and China closely when thinking about Great Lakes shipping?

DeLuca called Ukraine “a huge breadbasket” and the Russian invasion has made it hard to know how much planting will even be done this season.

“First and foremost, it’s difficult to see what’s going on there,” DeLuca said of the invasion.

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Shipping lines are boycotting Russia, and new rounds of COVID-19 outbreaks in China are closing some ports there. It’ll all have cascading effects across the world.

“This is going to be an interesting shipping year,” DeLuca said. “Supply chain disruptions are not resolving quickly. … We don’t know what’s going to happen to their grain (in eastern Europe). We’ll have to watch and see what develops there.”

How close is Duluth’s Clure to becoming a regular maritime container cargo port?

Hard to know, but it’s closer than ever before.

Most local residents have become accustomed to wind turbine blades and major project components moving through the Clure Public Marine Terminal. But last year, the Port Authority announced it had met requirements to accept maritime cargo containers, too.

Shipping containers.
Shipping containers sit in stacks in Duluth’s Clure Public Marine Terminal on Sunday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Until recently, the Port Authority’s multi-modal service with Lake Superior Warehousing, Duluth Cargo Connect, only handled cargo containers moving through the terminal on truck and rail.

But the addition of maritime cargo containers has the specialty grain market eyeing use of the service.

Earlier this month, the local port’s new capacity was among the topics of a transportation conference in Milwaukee, where the quickening pace of U.S. exports for wheat, feedstock and oil seeds was a topic due to the changes in the eastern European market. Additional loads of corn exports were also noted to be emanating from the Great Lakes.

“Duluth has got an excellent team and intermodal rail section there that gives me and company members great confidence,” said Eric Wenberg, executive director of the Specialty Soya and Grains Alliance, a national association of companies focused on getting field crops to markets worldwide.

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“What they need to do is complete the final rail-to-sea link,” Wenberg added.

Meaning Duluth-Superior can’t be an export terminal alone for container cargoes. For the local port to thrive in a container cargo market, it will need to have imports to balance Midwestern grain outputs and other exports.

“There’s no such thing as an export terminal,” Wenberg said, referencing a need to balance the service with imports. “For Duluth and the Duluth terminal to succeed, it’s going to need to find goods Minnesotans want to buy — that Minnesota companies need to undertake their manufacturing — and bring that into Duluth.”

Wenberg hoped to see farm products like cranberries or beans leaving Duluth by container sometime this season. The Great Lakes have long struggled to break into traditional logistics patterns due to industries reliance on coastal ports and apathy for a shipping route that’s closed in the coldest months.

But struggles with supply chains throughout the pandemic have altered the paradigm, and the return of an unconstrained transportation system isn’t likely, Wenberg said. It’s forced industries to think differently, and reconsider the Great Lakes as an option.

“We have to have some awareness that Minnesotans are going to purchase abroad and do need raw materials imported,” Wenberg said. “We have to have an attitude of openness, of willingness to have conversations about that. We have to include in our promotion efforts that to get cargo out, we have to make allowances ... and connections to help those trying to get products into our state. We haven’t thought like that before.”

Wenberg suggested it could be several months before container cargo suppliers start to rely more heavily on the Great Lakes. DeLuca declined to offer a guess.

"We’re working on the service," she said.

What’s the status of the Duluth-bound Coast Guard Cutter Spar, and also the possibility of another heavy icebreaker, akin to the Mackinaw, being built for the Great Lakes?

The Coast Guard announced this month that Cutter Spar was bound for its new home port in Duluth.

A look at vessel tracking services showed the Spar had passed Montreal in the St. Lawrence Seaway and was nearing Lake Ontario on Wednesday afternoon.

The Spar is replacing the Cutter Alder, which was recommissioned to the Bay Area on the West Coast last summer.

The loss of Alder left Duluth-Superior without an ice-breaking asset this winter.

And while the Coast Guard was able to cobble together assets to clear out the port, the U.S. shipping industry has been angling for years for another heavy icebreaker.

There’s a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives which would study the Coast Guard mission on the Great Lakes and its role in domestic ice-breaking.

After years of opposition to a new $350 million Great Lakes ice breaker, Coast Guard leadership most recently testified in Congress that it’s an absolute need.

Coast Guard vessel traveling through ice
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Hollyhock travels through ice on Lake Superior before reaching the Duluth Entry on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

“They’ve had a change in tune,” Peace said.

Historically, the Coast Guard’s priorities on the Great Lakes have been search-and-rescue missions, along with urgent responses to community needs, such as flooding. Maintaining aids to navigation has also been a higher priority than ice-breaking, which has always ranked as a fourth priority.

Peace believes that years of lobbying have helped elevate ice-breaking, which he considers necessary for the economy and national security.

The Chamber of Marine Commerce based in Ottawa announced Wednesday that it was honoring Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Todd Young, R-Ind., with Great Lakes Marine Commerce awards for supporting the Great Lakes Winter Commerce Act — the legislation that will further define and codify the Coast Guard’s ice-breaking responsibilities on the Great Lakes.

“I’ve secured initial funding for a Great Lakes icebreaker in the last six appropriations bills and authored language that established a major acquisition program office for the Great Lakes icebreaker within the Coast Guard,” Baldwin said. “But we still have more work to do.”

This story originally misidentified of Eric Peace. It was updated at 10:15 a.m. March 24, 2022. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Shipping containers.
A reach stacker moves a shipping container in Duluth’s Clure Public Marine Terminal on April 20, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune
People watching Coast Guard tugboat travel through ice
People look on from the Duluth Harbor North Pier as the U.S. Coast Guard’s Neah Bay travels through ice on Lake Superior toward the Aerial Lift Bridge on Wednesday.
Dan Williamson / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune
 Vessel travels under the lift bridge
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Hollyhock travels under the Aerial Lift Bridge in Duluth on Wednesday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
Coast Guard vessels travel through ice on Lake Superior
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Hollyhock, left, and the U.S. Coast Guard’s Neah Bay travel through ice on Lake Superior while heading toward Canal Park in Duluth on Wednesday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

SEE ALSO
The Great Lakes Fleet of lake freighters features nine vessels, including the Arthur M. Anderson and three 1,000-footers.

Brady Slater covers St. Louis County and transportation for the Duluth News Tribune. He's a veteran journalist, and a University of Pittsburgh graduate who was born and raised in the Northland. He can be reached by emailing bslater@duluthnews.com or by calling or texting 218-721-2724.
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