Surging Great Lakes, seaway grain shipments buoy COVID-hit Ontario ports

Shipments of Canadian grain through the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway are up 20 per cent, bolstering Ontario ports, new figures show.

Canadian grain continues to be the saving grace for marine commerce along the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway, with 5.2 million tonnes shipped from April 1 to August 31.

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The surge is good news for an otherwise foundering industry, with shipments of many other goods down significantly.

“Grain has certainly saved our bacon in 2020,” said Bruce Burrows, president of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, a binational association representing more than 130 marine stakeholders. “Ontario grain has been healthy at the ports. Corn and some other products are moving quite nicely.”

Meanwhile, iron ore shipments have dropped 23 per cent, from 4.4 million tonnes to 3.4 million tonnes; liquid bulk, like oil, is off 23 per cent, from 2.6 million tonnes to just over two million tonnes; and dry bulk is down 11 per cent, from more than 6.1 million tonnes to nearly 5.5 million tonnes.

Overall, year-to-date shipments on the seaway are down eight per cent, dropping from just more than 21 million tonnes between April and August last year to 19.9 million tones in the same period this year.

Port Windsor, one of Southwestern Ontario’s largest, was clobbered early in the spring. COVID-19 shutdowns delayed the seaway’s opening and halted essential construction, resulting in an 18 per cent drop in spring shipments.

A recent strong showing of grain has allowed the port to claw some of that back. Shipments are now down six per cent from last year, with total cargo dropping from nearly 3.2 million tonnes in 2019 to just shy of three million tonnes this year.

Steve Salmons, president of Port Windsor, said grain shipments are up 12 per cent, or more than 25 shiploads, from last year, to their highest level in more than five years.

The Port of Thunder Bay has seen a 27 per cent increase, largely driven by wheat and canola shipments from Western Canada. Port authorities estimate they've shipped one million tonnes more grain than last year, at just over five million tonnes. Overall cargo shipments are projected to reach 10 million tonnes, levels not seen since 1997.

The August figures come as the industry eyes the incoming 2021 crop, which should start coming off the fields in weeks. Many Southwestern Ontario farmers project a bumper crop.

“Down in the warm corn belt that’s around London, the harvests start next week, so it’s an important part of the year for us,” Burrows said.

Burrows said Canadian grain is popular in international markets, such as South America and Europe, adding a strong harvest this season will help project optimism for next year’s shipments.

“Our customers are expecting good harvests from (Canada) this year and the seaway is poised for a big push of grain exports right up to the end of the year,” said Terence Bowles, president of the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp.

As the industry prepares for a final rush before the season closes at year’s end, Burrows said they’ll monitor closely the economic and safety impacts of a potential second wave of COVID-19 — particularly as Ontario case counts continue to rise.

“I think we’re in good shape to manage that challenge,” he said.

So far, there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on any Canadian ships.

“That’s been our No. 1 priority, to make sure our crews stay safe and healthy, and to keep moving our ships around,” Burrows said.

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