Close observers of Great Lakes shipping have noticed that not all of the Duluth-based Great Lakes Fleet have been in action since the March start to the shipping campaign.
Online vessel trackers have noted the Presque Isle, Edwin H. Gott and Roger Blough hauling taconite iron ore on the lakes, but some observers have been asking why the popular Arthur M. Anderson was staying put in Toledo on Lake Erie.
Key Lakes Shipping, of Duluth, confirmed on Monday that the Anderson was doing the same thing as the Philip R. Clarke was doing in Toledo, and the John G. Munson and Edgar B. Speer in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, and the Cason J. Callaway in Erie, Pennsylvania — getting crewed up and ready to start their seasons. Some of the fleet mates were fitting out, or testing, their winter repairs on the water.
Key Lakes operates the Great Lakes Fleet for Canadian National Railway. General Manager Ken Gerasimos confirmed that the Anderson and the rest of the still-idled ore boats in the fleet would start their seasons in the coming days.
What happens after that is anybody's guess. In a plummeting economy, some steel mills are slowing down and blast furnaces being shut down.
Mills that chewed up their ore stockpiles through winter layup need replenishing. But if the mines slow, then it will be time to watch which, if any, ore boats go back to being moored along a long dock or tucked into a slip somewhere to wait out the economic storm.
Jim Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers' Association, said most of the U.S.-flag ships have been operating since the Soo Locks opened in late March, and that there remains demand for iron ore, coal, stone and sand.
"This year, like every year, we have to replenish stockpiles, meet current demand and stockpile enough cargo to make it through next winter," Weakley said. "We adjust our ability to deliver cargo based on the demands of our customers. Hopefully, that means more boats will continue to sail and we will not see a need to lay up boats until next winter. Right now, we have no way of knowing how the season will develop."
As the leader atop a trade association, Weakley said he was sensitive to antitrust laws and reluctant to make predictive statements about market demands or vessel utilization.
"We can say, however, that we are a service industry and we strive to meet the demands of our customers," he said. "As long as our customers need our services, we will provide the boats to meet their demands."