By Alex Binkley

Last spring, with a delayed start to the shipping season caused by high water levels and the economic uncertainty created by the pandemic, 2020 was looking grim for the Great Lakes ports. Yet Thunder Bay recorded one of its best years, Hamilton-Oshawa Port Authority (HOPA) and Windsor saw encouraging finishes to the season while Toronto and Johnstown turned in credible performances under the circumstances.

Thunder Bay shipped over 9.2 million tonnes of Prairie grain along with another million tonnes of freight for its best result since 1997. “The grain story bucks the downward trend” of every other cargo on the Seaway in 2020, said Port CEO Tim Heney. The surge was due to hefty stocks from a large 2019 harvest and worldwide stockpiling of staple foods during the pandemic. Canola and soybean orders from Europe grew at a higher rate than those for durum wheat.

Overseas grain demand drew over 150 foreign vessels to Thunder Bay for grain in 2020, the second-highest tally at the port since the Seaway opened in 1959. The port also received its first delivery of phosphate fertilizer for Prairie farmers and expects to see more shipments this year, adding to its diversification mix.

Ian Hamilton, HOPA Ports President & CEO, said, “There was a point this past spring when things were looking rather bleak due to COVID shutdowns, and our tonnage was down by over 30 per cent. Since then, the reopening of the economy made for an extremely busy fourth quarter and we closed out the season on a decidedly optimistic note.” HOPA recorded a final tonnage total of 10.6 million tonnes, virtually matching its 2019 results. While Hamilton experienced lower levels of steelmaking and petroleum products shipments, this was offset by increased shipments of grain, fertilizer, finished steel, salt and gypsum. Oshawa posted its best season ever with 672,000 tonnes produced by a strong trade in fertilizer, grain, steel and cement.

Hamilton has more than $21 million in infrastructure projects underway, aimed at growing port capacity and improving efficiency. In Oshawa, a Sollio Agriculture grain terminal completed its first full season handling soybeans, wheat and corn grow in the surrounding Durham Region.

Port of Windsor saw a 4 per cent decline in cargo to 4.5 million tonnes but, in addition to higher grain volumes, saw a pick up of salt, aggregates and general traffic in the second half of the year, said CEO Steve Salmons. “Much of this surge relates to the increase in grain shipments that were processed through our port bound for Europe. This increased activity offset the more significant decrease of 45.5 per cent in vessel traffic by U.S. ships and ferry activity.” The construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge linking Windsor and Detroit will bring a lot of activity to the port as it is constructed during the next few years. Salmons hopes it will also lead to the development of an integrated, international transportation hub in the region.

The port of Toronto moved 2.2 million tonnes of cargo, bringing road salt, sugar, cement, aggregate and steel directly into the city’s core.

Johnstown handled 1.2 million tonnes of traffic, its third best year since being taken over by the Municipality of Edwardsburg-Cardinal 22 years ago. Salt shipments were down by more than 110,000 tons while grain was up by 18 per cent, to 235,230 in 15 ships.

Grain cargos increased across the board in beans, corn and wheat; corn volumes included two incoming vessel loads and 100 railcars for one local processor. Several capital improvements were undertaken in 2020 for a total investment of $4.2 million, notably nine new ship loading spouts, replacement of rail ties, completion of a 16,000-ton storage bin, dust collection system improvements and a new cargo conveyor belt.