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Ore trade lags on Great Lakes

A slow start to the shipping campaign continued off pace, with officials highlighting cargo diversity that's been a saving grace.

The Mesabi Miner.
The Mesabi Miner turns in Superior Bay to line up with the Aerial Lift Bridge to leave Duluth on Sunday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — While shipping leaders were thankful of a diverse flow of cargoes buoying May’s shipping totals, there was no denying iron ore shipments remained off pace.

Shipments of iron ore from U.S. Great Lakes ports totaled 4.4 million tons in May — a decrease of 20.4% compared to the same month a year ago, and 21.9% below the month’s five-year average, according to the Ohio-based Lake Carriers’ Association last week.

It was better than April’s 40% gap, and officials seized upon the industry closing the gap.

“It was good to see that early season deficit diminish,” said Deb DeLuca, Duluth Seaway Port Authority executive director. “But it continues to be a slower-than-normal start to the shipping season.”

The Great Republic.
The 635-foot-long Great Republic moves past the docked, 1,004-foot-long Edgar B. Speer on Sunday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

So far this season, the iron ore trade stands at 9.9 million tons, a decrease of 33.9% compared to the same point in 2021, and 31.4% below the five-year average.

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shipping tonnages May.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune
May shipping 2022 - web.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

DeLuca praised gains made in areas like container cargoes and cement.

“We’re hopeful that global supply chains normalize, which would also help normalize Duluth-Superior tonnage totals,” DeLuca said. “But these continue to be unusual times.”

Containerized cargoes moving through the Clure Public Marine Terminal on Rice’s Point in Duluth, and the season’s first inbound cement shipment helped Duluth’s total tonnage top 5.7 million short tons in May — a 31.8% increase over a “very slow April,” a Port Authority news release said last week.
Kidney beans made headlines in May, with 4,500 tons leaving in containers for Europe. It marked the port’s reentry into the maritime container business.

First foreign shipment of container cargo set to leave Port of Duluth
Gantry cranes unload wind turbine cargo from the saltie Nunalik on May 27 at the Port of Duluth.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

“Greater cargo diversity and more multimodal shipping options make our port and our region more vibrant,” DeLuca said. “It’s a team effort to create these kinds of solutions for helping regional producers and manufacturers compete in the global marketplace, and we’re excited to see those efforts coming to fruition.”

South of the Clure, at Duluth’s Ash Grove/CRH terminal, some 22,046 tons of cement arrived in May to be used in infrastructure projects throughout the Twin Ports and beyond. The shipment moved total cement tonnage within 11.7% of the five-season average.

Despite trailing five-year averages, iron ore made the biggest gains in May, with 1.9 million tons transiting the port.

The total eclipsed the April 2022 figure by more than 30%, but the season-to-date total still lags the five-season average by almost 24%.

Coal and petcoke also moved briskly in May, topping 773,000 tons for the month and 1.4 million tons season-to-date. The total ranks within 7.6% of the five-season average.

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All told, 75 ships arrived in the Twin Ports in May 2022, outpacing the May 2021 total by two ships.

May limestone.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

A bigger picture of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway system also came into view last week, when the Chamber of Marine Commerce issued a report on pandemic recovery.

The report estimated 149 million metric tons of cargo movement in 2021, a figure reaching 94% of its pre-pandemic 2019 level, and 7% better than pandemic-stricken 2020.

“This report paints a clear picture that the bi-national Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System supported the economic recovery and growth of many of our key industries in both Canada and the U.S.,” said Bruce Burrows, president and CEO of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, based in Ottawa.

With inflation rising to historic levels, Burrows noted the bi-national waterway operates without delay, and ought to be considered an even greater solution to transportation and supply chain problems.

“It’s more important than ever that we focus our attention and investment on this unique inland marine highway,” he said.

Other highlights of the chamber’s pandemic recovery report:

  • Iron ore continues to be the most traded commodity on the system, accounting for roughly a third of total cargo tonnage on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System. Canadian and U.S. ships carried iron ore from Minnesota and Quebec mines to support the resurgence of steel manufacturing in both countries.
  • Across the region, materials such as stone, cement and steel were in hot demand for housing and commercial/infrastructure-related construction projects in both Canada and the U.S. 
  • Canadian-flag ships carried 63.2 million metric tons of cargo, a slight decrease of 1.3% compared to 2020. It was still “a strong performance,” however, with total cargo carried reaching 98% of the five-year average. While commodities like general cargo, stone, steel, cement and overall dry bulk posted increases, those were offset by a 10% decrease in grain shipments following a much smaller harvest. Petroleum shipments also fell by 5.7% (after a 6.6% decline in 2020) due to “continuing work-from-home trends and travel restrictions in 2021.”
  • U.S.-flag ships carried a total of 74.2 million metric tons (81.8 million net tons) — up 16.8% over 2020. Total cargo tonnage bounced back to 99% of its five-year average. Iron ore and coal shipments were up 12.4% and 43%, respectively, recovering significantly from pandemic lows. 
  • Foreign-flag ships transported 11.6 million metric tons of cargo through the St. Lawrence Seaway to and from overseas destinations — matching the 2020 performance. “Ocean-going vessels played an important role in importing specialty steel from Europe, other project cargo and exporting grain to overseas destinations,” the chamber’s post-pandemic report said. 
More on shipping and sailing on the Great Lakes

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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