By Alex Binkley

The St. Lawrence Seaway opens late for the 2014 season, but with the prospect of better results than last year. The long cold winter has left the Great Lakes covered with more ice than during the last 35 years. In early March, the ice cover on the Great Lakes reached 91 per cent, the highest since 1979 when it peaked at 93.9 per cent. The long-range weather forecast for the Great Lakes region will make for a late start to spring.

The ice is so extensive that the Seaway Corporations set the opening for March 28, about a week later than usual, to give more time for ice to clear. In addition, they and shipowner organizations held extensive discussions during February with the Canadian and American Coast Guards on how the Great Lakes system could be opened for navigation.

Terence Bowles, President and CEO of The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., says in an interview he’s hopeful that all the preparation will enable the Seaway locks to open right away, and shipowners to get started on moving cargoes.

One positive for the Seaway is that there will be plenty of Prairie grain to move from the port of Thunder Bay through the waterway, thanks to the delays in moving it by rail to the West Coast this winter, he adds. As well, the American and Canadian economies are in better health than a year ago, he notes. That should bring more cargo to the system, which will benefit from pent-up demand from customers after a long winter. While last year’s total tonnage of 37 million tonnes was both disappointing and below predictions, Bowles is confident the Seaway will reach 40 million tonnes this season.

Given all the ice in the Great Lakes, a lot of attention will be focused on the ability of the Canadian Coast Guard to open channels to enable the freighters to pick up and deliver cargoes. Its icebreakers on the Great Lakes are the Griffin, which is 44 years old, and the Samuel Risley, which has been in operation since 1985. The Coast Guard has told shipowners it plans on dispatching two more icebreakers to the Great Lakes once the Seaway is open.

Robert Lewis-Manning, President of the Canadian Shipowners Association, says they will be needed. “From an industry perspective, this will be one icebreaker too few and we assess that an additional breaker will be required in the middle Lakes due to the ice conditions and the reduced operational capability of the Risley.” One of its engines has failed.

It could be well into April before shipping on the Great Lakes is able to reach full operation, says the former navy captain. “The ice won’t go away fast enough. Both the Canadian and American Coast Guard fleets are old and tired. And with all the ice this year, they will be working so hard that all the things that can go wrong with a ship will.”

He expects freighters will have to be grouped in convoys for their own safety so they can follow an icebreaker through the ice. “We’re going to need to be well co-ordinated.”

The cold and snow during the final weeks of the 2013 season last December showed how much trouble ice can create throughout the Lakes and the Seaway, he continued.

The Coast Guard said it would be working in partnership with “the U.S. Coast Guard assets in icebreaking operations throughout the winter and spring of 2014.” It “plans to send an air cushion vehicle to start icebreaking operations in the St. Lawrence Seaway above Montreal, followed by a high endurance multi-task vessel. It also plans to deploy an additional medium icebreaker, where and when the situation warrants as part of its continuous assessment of operational needs and deployment of assets as required.”

Glen Nekvasil, Vice-President of the Lake Carriers Association, says “The ice is going to be formidable. It’s going to take a heck of a melt to get the Lakes open.” As an example of the challenge the ships will face, he noted that back in December, trips that normally take two days last seven as vessels battled with fast forming ice. “They spent hundreds of hours sitting in the ice.”

Michael Broad, President of the Shipping Federation of Canada (SFC), said his group has been pressing the federal government to speed up the acquisition of modern icebreakers for the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, and this spring could demonstrate just why there’re needed. SFC made a detailed presentation to the federal government last year pointing out that under the current ship construction policy, it could take until 2022 before a new breaker is built, he added.

The Coast Guard has been struggling with ice in the St. Lawrence River since Christmas. It took three icebreakers several days in early January to get shipping moving. SODES blamed the delays on the antiquated state of the Coast Guard icebreakers and said new ships are needed to maintain shipping lanes in winters of heavy ice conditions. Like the Shipping Federation, it warned that the government’s shipbuilding program will delay the arrival of new vessels for years. “The industry’s concerns stem from the precarious state of the current icebreaking fleet, which has an average vessel age of 33 and suffers from a lack of replacement parts. Indeed, of the icebreaking units that are currently in service, almost a third are operating at less than full capacity.”

The government needs to reconsider its investment priorities for the Coast Guard, “which are currently focused not on acquiring much-needed new icebreaker units, but on prolonging the life of an already aged fleet and on building a billion dollar polar icebreaker for use in the Canadian Arctic. It is essential that the federal government view the maintenance of safe and reliable winter operations along the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes as a priority item. Trade along this axis generates tens of billions of dollars in economic activity each year, and represents almost 40 per cent of Canada’s international freight and 50 per cent of its domestic freight. If our industries are to remain strong and competitive in the future, the government must take action to invest in the renewal of the Coast Guard’s icebreaking fleet today.”

The National Marine Advisory Board has developed a plan for icebreaking requirements for the whole country covering 2011-2016, but they seem predicated on relatively mild ice conditions seen through much of the 2000s. In addition to protecting shipping, icebreaking is needed to prevent flooding caused by ice jams. A report from the Board’s icebreaking subcommittee notes that the number of icebreakers has dropped to 18 from 22, many of which are more than 30 years old.

All the talk about ice has alleviated for now the perennial concern about water levels in the Great Lakes. While the heavy snowfall throughout the Great Lakes region this winter should bring water levels up as it melts, the long-term outlook remains iffy. Later this spring, the Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto will release a detailed report on the water level issue, which already has many property owners around the Great Lakes demanding action to reverse a decline that stretches over the last few decades. It also poses a threat to shipping especially on the United States side where under-funding of dredging has left many ports unable to accept fully loaded ships.

Betty Sutton, Administrator of the U.S. Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., says government agencies are working on acceptable solutions that “will provide for safe efficient movement of water-borne transport.”

Everyone agrees it should be an event-filled year on the Great Lakes.