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Dip in ore trade not enough to curb shipping rebound

The overseas shipping close looms at the end of the month, while the end of the Great Lakes season comes Jan. 15.

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People watch as the American Integrity sails into the Superior Entry on Monday afternoon, Dec. 13, 2021, to load iron ore pellets. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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With roughly one month left in the Great Lakes shipping campaign, the Great Lakes ore trade dipped in November, delivering 4.2 million tons of taconite iron ore compared to 4.25 million tons the same month last year.

Still, the recovery from pandemic lows persisted overall, with the port of Duluth-Superior delivering 3 million tons of cargo for the month, up from 2.7 million tons last year.

Overall, the Twin Ports has moved 29 million tons of cargo through November, compared to 22.2 million tons last year at the same point.

The Great Lakes shipping campaign ends Jan. 15 with the closure of the Soo Locks off the eastern end of Lake Superior.

The St. Lawrence Seaway is set to close Dec. 31, bringing an end to overseas imports and exports.

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The American Integrity sails through Lake Superior to the Superior Entry on Monday afternoon, Dec. 13, 2021, to load iron ore pellets. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“As we close in on the season’s final weeks, we can say it’s been a strong rebound from the COVID-induced lows of 2020,” Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said in a news release statement. “Total tonnage here at the Head of the Lakes is more than 30% above last year’s pace and also slightly above the five-season average. That’s good news for the region and good news for the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System as a whole.”

The Great Lakes shipping season reopens March 25. The Soo Locks are maintained during the offseason, and shipping companies use the time off to repair and rehabilitate vessels at local shipyards.

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

The local port has seen a downturn in overseas cargoes through the St. Lawrence Seaway, with considerably less grain and fewer wind-turbine components than in recent years. Year to date, the Duluth-Superior port has moved 750,000 million tons of overseas cargo, compared to 1.1 million tons last year at this time.

The Chamber of Marine Commerce, based in Ottawa, Ontario, said slower grain exports were “due to smaller harvests compared to 2020.”

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

According to the latest figures on imports and exports through the St. Lawrence Seaway, general cargo shipments, including steel, aluminum and oversized machinery through November are up 71%. And with just two weeks left of the overseas shipping season, U.S. Great Lakes ports and the St. Lawrence Seaway were reporting a rush of activity as manufacturers stockpile raw materials.

Iron ore shipments overseas are up 17%, while dry bulk shipments including construction materials like stone, cement and gypsum have increased by 6%, compared to the same period last year.

Bruce Burrows called the overseas season a “story of recovery and renewal.”

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Crew members on the American Integrity look at folks watching them on the Superior Entry on Monday afternoon, Dec. 13, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“U.S. Great Lakes ports have roared back this year — recovering from major 2020 declines in traditional cargoes like iron ore and steel but also developing new business and seizing on opportunities for infrastructure investment,” said Burrows, president and CEO of the Chamber of Marine Commerce. “Throughout the pandemic and amidst global supply chain disruptions, Great Lakes-Seaway shipping has once again proven it’s a reliable, ‘safe harbor’ in a storm.”

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Locally, the ports have all moved iron ore at a rate greater than last year (through November):

  • Duluth: 8.3 million tons in 2021 compared to 7.3 million tons in 2020.
  • Superior: 10.6 million tons compared to 6.4 million tons.
  • Two Harbors: 13.8 million tons to 11.6 million tons.
  • Silver Bay: 5.5 million tons compared to 3.9 million tons.

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People watch the American Integrity sail through the Superior Entry on Monday afternoon, Dec. 13, 2021, to pick a load of iron ore pellets. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

The slight dip in the Great Lakes ore trade, to 4.2 million tons in November compared to 4.25 million tons in November 2020, marked the first month so far in 2021 that ore cargoes failed to beat the number from a season ago.

Still, the 47.1 million tons of iron ore moved so far in 2021 outstripped last year’s pandemic-curbed total of 36.6 million tons, and is ahead of the five-year average of roughly 46 million tons.

The port of Duluth-Superior has welcomed 627 vessels to port through November, compared to 534 last year. Only overseas vessels were down 44, compared to 79 a year ago.

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

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