By Alex Binkley


Considering the turmoil in global marine shipping and a drop in Canadian imports and exports last year, there are some bright spots in the 2016 tonnage statistics for the 18 Canadian Port Authorities.

The port of Montreal handled 35.2 million tonnes compared to 32 million tonnes in 2015, which was a record performance for Canada’s second busiest port.

Quebec City, Halifax, Nanaimo, Toronto, Belledune and Port Alberni also reported traffic gains over 2015. St. John’s, Saint John, Sept Iles, Hamilton, Windsor, Thunder Bay and Oshawa came within 100,000 tonnes or less of their 2015 results.

The port of Vancouver, the country’s busiest port by far, hasn’t released its final statistics for 2016 yet. However, to the end of November it was 800,000 tonnes below its 2015 numbers, which might suggest it finished the year at less than the 138 million tonnes it handled during 2015.

Still, it appears that total CPA tonnage for 2016 will be in the 311 million tonne range, which is an improvement over last year’s 306.8 million tonnes and in line with 2013 and 2014 shipments.

Saint John, the third busiest port, handled 26.44 million tonnes, unchanged from 2015, but off its recent peak of 31.7 million tonnes reached in 2011. Volumes handled by the port of Quebec rose to 24.8 million tonnes from 21 million tonnes in 2015 but remained well below the 32.5 million tonnes handled in 2012. Sept-Iles achieved a nominal increase, but remained well below its recent peak of 28 million tonnes in 2012. At 18.9 million tonnes, Prince Rupert volumes declined from 2015 volumes, and remained well below the 23.1 million tonnes it handled in 2013.

To put some context to the results, Canada’s trade deficit widened to $26.1 billion last year from $23 billion in 2015, as exports fell 0.7 per cent to $521.1 billion and imports edged down 0.1 per cent to $547.2 billion. While those figures do not separate land shipments to the United States and Mexico from water-borne or airborne overseas exports and imports, it is evident that 2016 was a year of stagnation. In fact, total 2016 ACPA port volumes exceeded 2012 volumes by only 0.6 per cent.

Montreal spokeswoman Melanie Nadeau said the port’s “grain and liquid bulk sectors performed especially well last year. The unaudited results represents a 10 per cent upswing in traffic.” Jim Quinn, President & CEO of Port of Saint John, said it experienced drops in the dry bulk sector and increases in liquid bulk and breakbulk. Container traffic dropped slightly compared to 2015. “We are in a transitional phase in the next steps of modernizing this port,” he added. “As we start 2017, we are particularly excited that our new partner DP World Saint John is now in operation. This partnership blends their global reach and influence together with our terminal modernization plan to achieve the common objective of continued growth and a bright future for the Port and its supporting port service community.”

Port of Quebec spokeswoman Sarah Sutton said, “Cement cargo reached a 20-year high with over 670,000 tonnes, representing a 14 per cent increase, which accounts for the majority of the increase in overall 2016 tonnage. Stone, aggregate, sand and salt cargo levels covered the balance of the increase for 2016.”

Pierre Gagnon, President & CEO of Port Sept-Iles, is optimistic that a deal struck in late 2016 to encourage port expansion and rising world iron prices means “we can view next year much more positively and with more excitement than the previous year.” New developments should bring more business. In 2016, IOC Rio Tinto increased its shipments with 18.6 million tonnes in 2016 versus 17.8 million tonnes the previous year. Tata Steel Minerals Canada shipped 1.6 million tonnes in 2016 compared with 2.3 million in 2015. Gagnon noted that “With the difficult conditions that arose in the iron market in 2016, Port of Sept-Iles had to deal with lower revenue and take steps to limit its operating and investment expenses, as well as its community assistance program.”

Prince Rupert saw its total tonnage drop mainly because of a 10 per cent decrease in container movements through Ridley Terminals, a 2 per cent drop at Prince Rupert Grain, and a 29 per cent decline in empty containers moved from the Fairview Container Terminal, spokesman Kris Schumacher said. The actual number of laden containers handled rose by 2 per cent. The Port was also among those hit by the bankruptcy of Hanjin container lines last year. On the upside, shipments of grain and coal picked up in November and December.

Hamilton Port Authority noted its 0.4 per cent increase in traffic came despite a 3 per cent drop in shipments through the St. Lawrence Seaway. The agri-food sector continues to deliver positive results for the port, says Ian Hamilton, its President and CEO. “We’ve seen terrific momentum in the past several years, as new terminal investments have increased our capacity to get crops from Ontario farms to global markets efficiently. With these new developments on the horizon, we expect the growth trend to continue.”

The picture isn’t as bright with steel. The ongoing decline in tonnage at Hamilton’s Stelco facility is being balanced by positive performance among other steel players, such as ArcelorMittal Dofasco and Federal Marine Terminals, the Port says. At the same time, though, imports of finished steel reached their highest volume in the past five years, with 509,087 tonnes transiting the port in 2016.

The port of Thunder Bay witnessed an unprecedented late season grain shipping surge but it wasn’t quite enough to pull it even with 2015. With its grain terminals filled, it hopes for a quick start this year. “This marks the third consecutive season of above-average cargo volumes, thanks to strong grain shipments as well as increases in coal and project cargo shipments,” the port noted. Grain shipments slipped to 7.5 million tonnes last year from just over 8 million tonnes in 2015 while coal shipments rose to 778,419 tonnes from 406,563 tonnes in 2015. However, potash, dry bulk, liquid bulk and general cargo all showed healthy increases. Project cargo and general cargo volumes were very strong in 2016. Keefer Terminal handled 14 shipments, which included electrical transformers, wind turbine components, wood pellets, mining equipment, and an OSB plant. As a result of the strong performance in project cargoes, Keefer’s cargo volumes hit a 19-year high in 2016.

Port of Halifax is coming off two years of significant declines, reaching 8.3 million tonnes compared to 7.6 million tonnes in 2015, notes spokesman Lane Farguson. In 2009, the port handled 9.7 million tonnes. “Several factors have come together over the past 18 months to contribute to the positive results we are seeing through the port this year,” Farguson added. “The port community in Halifax is working together to minimize transit times, reduce operating costs, mitigate risks and add value to those customers moving goods through Halifax.” Driving the port’s 2016 surge in container traffic was the addition of a new route by a huge consortium of shipping lines called the THE Alliance and a new service by one of its rivals, Ocean Alliance. The result should be increased traffic for both the Fairview Cove and South End container terminals in the coming years.

Among the smaller ports, Port Alberni’s two principal commodities are lumber and logs for export to Asian markets. Lumber predominantly goes to Japan and a small volume to China, while logs go to China, Korea and some to Japan. 2016 saw an increase of 8 per cent in lumber exports, while log exports were up 2 per cent over 2015. Asian markets maintained their strength while expectations had been for softer markets.

Nanaimo posted an 11 per cent tonnage gain to 5.4 million tonnes from 4.9 million tonnes in 2015. Spokesman David Mailloux attributed the strong showing, part of a steady increase in traffic since 2009, to a 22 per cent increase in container traffic and 61 per cent rise in log shipments.

The port of Windsor dropped to 4.8 million tonnes from 5.6 million tonnes in 2015 and its recent peak of 6 million tonnes in 2013. David Cree, President and CEO, said the near completion of the preliminary work for the new Gordie Howe Bridge caused a drop of almost 30 per cent in aggregate deliveries. He expects the situation will reverse once work on the actual bridge begins. Then port also handled increased steel and grain shipments.

Trois-Rivieres recorded 2.8 million tonnes last year compared to 3 million in 2015 and 3.7 million tonnes in 2014, its best recent year. Port of Belledune handled just over 2 million tonnes, up from 1.8 million tonnes in in 2015 and close to its peak of 2.1 million tonnes in 2010. Marketing Director Jenna MacDonald credited the arrival of six new commodities over the course of the year for most of the increase.

Toronto reached 1.8 million tonnes in shipments, up from 1.7 million tonnes in 2015 but below its 2014 peak of 2 million tonnes. Port Alberni handled 1.64 million tonnes last year, up from 1.59 million in 2015 but below its 2013 peak of 1.81 million tonnes.

St. John’s handled 1.7 million tonnes, down from 1.8 million in 2015 but close to its 2013 and 2014 peak results.

Despite increases in grain, steel and project cargo shipments, Port of Oshawa recorded 373,301 tonnes down from 378,365 tonnes in 2015 and below its recent peak of 472,553 in 2012. Port of Saguenay dropped to 300,000 tonnes from 340,000 in 2015, well below its recent peak of 384,000 tonnes in 2010.