Great Lakes shipping traffic appears whole again, and its revival is being fueled by taconite iron ore.

One season after the COVID-19 pandemic stalled the economy, resulting in a nearly 30% drop in Twin Ports shipping tonnage, the anticipated rebound is delivering in reality.

More than 2.3 million short tons of iron ore left the port of Duluth-Superior in June, the most in a single month since August 2019, and the highest June-only iron ore tonnage total since 2014.

Deb DeLuca
Deb DeLuca

“Steel demand remains strong and Minnesota’s Iron Range continues to operate at full production, which is a good thing for the state, the region and for the port of Duluth-Superior,” said Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, in a news release issued this week by the Ottawa-based Chamber of Marine Commerce.

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The total number of vessel arrivals in the Twin Ports (243 through June) is up nearly 30% over last season.

“(It’s) another positive indicator in what’s been a good shipping season thus far,” DeLuca said.

The Twin Ports aren’t alone in the Great Lakes’ recovery from pandemic lows.

Shipments of iron ore across the Great Lakes totaled 5.8 million tons in June, an increase of 43.6% over the same month in 2020.

Year-to-date, the iron ore trade across the Great Lakes stands at 20.7 million tons, 20.6% above the previous year’s total of 17.2 million tons through June. Iron ore shipments are also above their five-year average (19.6 million tons) by 5.7% for the first half of the season, which ends in January.

Two Harbors and Silver Bay are posting robust iron ore figures. Those ports along the North Shore have made 8.6 million tons of ore shipments so far in 2021, outstripping even the Twin Ports’ 8 million tons. Ore shipments between the Twin Ports and North Shore make up 78% of Great Lakes’ totals.

Gary Meader /
Gary Meader /

Even iron ore exports via the St. Lawrence Seaway are up 14%. Part of that increase is due to Canadian ship operators transporting healthy volumes of iron ore pellets from Lake Superior ports to the port of Quebec, where the pellets are sent overseas to Asia and Europe, the Chamber news release said.

Other cargoes are rising, too.

Shipments of limestone on the Great Lakes totaled 3.8 million tons in June, an increase of 17.8% from a year ago, putting those in line with five-year averages.

The dry bulk category, up 16% through June, is experiencing a strong rebound, the Chamber said, and is expected to perform well for the balance of the season due to high demand across this Great Lakes region of the U.S. and Canada for construction materials including cement (up 36%) and gypsum (up 79%).

Coke, used in steel and cement production, is up more than 125% compared to last year as global commodity price increases have also led to a big increase of coke exports from Superior and Toledo to France, the Netherlands and other European countries.

General cargo (up 61%) continues to be driven by steel imports from Europe, feeding manufacturing and construction activity throughout the Great Lakes region.

“This time last year, many of these cargoes had fallen off a cliff due to the pandemic,” said Bruce Burrows, president and CEO of the Chamber of Marine Commerce. “It’s great to see marine shipping bustling again and supporting the accelerating recovery of so many American industries.”