By Alex Binkley

With the extent of Great Lakes ice coverage once again near historic highs, shippers and shipowners will be watching with their fingers crossed as the Canadian and U.S. Coast Guards open navigation routes this spring. “We are concerned about the ice we’ll face,” said Robert Lewis-Manning, President of the Canadian Shipowners Association. “It is going to be challenging.” Canadian and American ship operators have been meeting regularly with the Coast Guards to plan a phased resumption of service. “Few people understand how fragile the icebreaking capacity is on the Lakes,” he adds. The Coast Guards “performed admirably last year with the resources they have. They’re really good at what they do.”

The concern for the industry is whether the aging icebreakers operated by both countries are capable of another concentrated bout of crunching open shipping channels. “They pushed their ships hard last year,” he says in an interview. “The ships are well maintained, but we worry about reliability both on the Lakes and in the St. Lawrence.”

“There’s a lot of ice out there,” adds Glen Nekvasil, Vice-President of the American Lake Carriers Association. “We could be pretty well iced over.” “It’s going to be difficult,” Michael Broad, President of the Shipping Federation of Canada, said in an interview. “There are meetings underway with the Coast Guards and the shipowners about how we are going to cope.” He credits the Coast Guards with conducting post-mortems on last year’s icebreaking experience. “They were looking for improvements in their operations, and it should be clear by the opening how they will be tackling the ice to get ships moving as soon as possible.” 

At the peak in early March 2014, the Great Lakes were about 92.5 per cent iced over and it took nearly a month for the Canadian and American Coast Guards to open routes for commercial navigation. Ice could still be found in May. By mid-February 2015, Canadian and American ice surveys found little open water in the Lakes. There was concern that continued cold weather and winds could push the cover above last year. There even suggestions this year’s ice cover could match the documented record of 94.7 per cent set in 1979. The big difference so far this year has been in Lake Ontario, which is now 78.5 per cent ice compared to 31.5 per cent at the same time last year.

If the incoming icebreakers have to battle their way across Lake Ontario to reach the Welland Canal, and then traverse ice-clogged Lake Erie, opening of navigation this year will be severely complicated, the shipowner representatives agreed.

Last year, the Canadian Coast Guard brought in five icebreakers to augment Griffon and Samuel Risley stationed on the Great Lakes, including two ships normally used in the Arctic. It’s prepared to bring in extra ships again this year, a Coast Guard spokeswoman says.

The U.S. Coast Guard planned to begin icebreaking March 9 with its main ship Mackinaw while the Canadian Coast Guard has already seen action this year. A foretaste about what might be in store came in the efforts it took in February for Griffon to free the U.S. bulk carrier Arthur M. Anderson that had been trapped for several days in an ice field on Lake Erie. Once freed, the freighter was escorted to Detroit by Risley while Griffon went on to guide a Canadian tanker from Nanticoke to Sarnia. “So far this year, the Canadian Coast Guard has conducted 141 vessel escorts on the Great Lakes and connecting waterways,” CCG said in an email.

Carol Launderville said the service “is prepared to deploy additional resources into the Great Lakes, if required and when available, to provide extra icebreaking capacity for the Great Lakes in conjunction with the Seaway opening. “Depending on prevailing ice conditions, it is standard practice to allow CCG icebreakers to enter the Seaway a few days in advance of the official opening to supplement icebreaking operations. Until the Seaway opens, no commercial vessels can enter/exit the Great Lakes system.

James Weakley, President of the U.S. Lake Carriers Association, says the ice conditions highlight the need for both countries to invest in new icebreakers. Washington should building a ship to match Mackinaw while Ottawa has to beef up its Great Lakes fleet. “We appreciate that they temporarily moved in some assets to respond to difficult conditions, but it takes time to get icebreakers from the East Coast to the Lakes, and once the Seaway closes, that option is no longer available.”

The Coast Guard noted that in October 2013, the federal government announced that five new medium-endurance multi-tasked vessels would be added to the Coast Guard’s fleet renewal plan. Four will replace existing ships and the fifth will replace a science vessel, carrying out research during the summer and icebreaking activities during the winter. While that will increase the Coast Guard’s icebreaking capacity on the Great Lakes by one, no indication has been provided on when construction of the new ships might begin.