By Alex Binkley

Port operators are in an upbeat mood about their prospects for this year after many of them posted solid numbers for 2012. The numbers also show how well the Ports have rebounded since the height of the recession in 2009.

In total, the 18 major Ports handled 309.7 million tonnes of freight last year, up 2.2 per cent from 2011. In 2009, the total tonnage reached only 249 million tonnes. The growth in imports and exports has been impressive. Wendy Zatylny, Executive Director of the Association of Canadian Port Authorities, said her members feel “the growth is encouraging in light of the headwinds in the global economy. It certainly is an indicator of the competitiveness and quality of service of Canadian Port Authorities.” The Port Authorities have worked hard with their partners to smooth out the flow of goods through the supply chain, she added. “They are watching the Beyond The Border initiative in Prince Rupert to see how well it works.” As part of the Canada-U.S. agreement to improve trade flows by reducing red tape, American officials are checking freight destined for American locations when it reaches the B.C. port. That way it doesn’t have to be re-inspected when it enters the United States. Zatylny says her first six months in the Port industry have been exciting. “I’m struck by the level of conviviality among the Ports even among the ones that are in competition. Everyone keeps their eye on the big picture.”

Port Metro Vancouver easily retained its No. 1 ranking last year with a 1.1 per cent increase to 123.9 million tonnes. In 2009, Vancouver handled 101.9 million tonnes. No. 2 was Quebec at 32.5 million tonnes, a record level and a 12.5-per-cent increase from 2011 and up more than 10 million tonnes from 2009. Montreal finished third with 28.4 million tonnes, a slight decrease from last year, but still about four million tonnes ahead of 2009. However, Sept-Îles and Saint John are close behind it. Sept-Îles posted a 7.7 per cent increase in traffic to 28 million tonnes, compared to 19.8 million in 2009. A slow fourth quarter left Saint John at 27.7 million tonnes, a 12.6-per-cent drop from 2011 but almost one million tonnes better than in 2009. Prince Rupert continued its remarkable growth reaching 22.2 million tonnes, up 15 per cent from 2011, which is almost double the 2009 figure of just over 12 million tonnes.

All the other Ports come in at under 20 million tonnes with Hamilton clocking at 10.3 million tonnes, up 2.6 per cent and almost two million tonnes higher than in 2009. Halifax was essentially unchanged at 9.5 million tonnes last year and down slightly from 9.6 million in 2009. Thunder Bay handled 7.8 million tonnes, up 3.1 per cent from last year and about a half million tonnes up from 2009. Windsor posted close to 5.5 million tonnes up 3.1 per cent from 2011 and about a half million tonnes better than in 2009. Trois-Rivières managed 3.3 million tonnes unchanged from 2011 and just under a half million tonnes higher than 2009. Port Alberni handled 1.6 million tonnes, up 6.5 per cent from 2011 and almost a half million tonnes better than 2009. St. John’s slipped by 3.3 per cent to 1.38 million tonnes, which was also below its 2009 numbers. Belledune dropped by 10 per cent to 1.9 million tonnes and also below the 2.6 million tonnes in 2009.

Reflecting the building boom in the Ontario capital, Port of Toronto saw an 11.5-per-cent increase in business to 1.9 million tonnes. Port Alberni recorded a 6.5-per-cent increase to 1.6 million tonnes. Back in 2009, it handled just over one million tonnes. While Oshawa had the second smallest amount of traffic at 472.5 million tonnes, it recorded the biggest year over year increase of 66.4 per cent. Saguenay dropped 9 per cent to 295,000 tonnes barely ahead of its 2009 result.

Vancouver set records in container and bulk shipments last year reflecting “growth in Asian economies and continuing strength in the Canadian economy.” Container shipments exceeded forecast growth rising 8 per cent over 2011 numbers to 2.7 million TEUs. Breakbulk was up thanks to higher shipments of logs and woodpulp, while bulk shipments dropped overall due to the damage at the coal loading terminal. Crude oil shipments rose 35 per cent. The Port undertook a series of infrastructure projects to increase its efficiency and minimize the impact of Port operations on the surrounding communities.

The increase in freight traffic through Quebec hit an all time high. “In 2012, the Port beat records for the amount of merchandise handled and number of cruises. In this regard, the Port was clearly the No. 1 St. Lawrence River Port in 2012,” said Mario Girard, President and CEO of the Port Authority.

Montreal saw increased export grain and container traffic, despite the economic turmoil in Europe, which is the origin or destination for almost half of the shipments passing through the port. The Port credits diversification into Asian, Latin American and African markets for compensating for a drop in shipments to Europe. On the other hand, liquid bulk traffic in the port declined as a shutdown in oil refining in Sarnia ended during the year. “The liquid bulk shipments in 2011 were exceptional and 2012 was our second highest for the category in Montreal, which expects to remain a major petroleum hub,” said spokesman Yves Gilson.

The growth in traffic from Sept-Îles was primarily the result of growing iron ore shipments, especially from Labrador Iron Mines, which accounted for more than 80 per cent of the growth. Ore shipments should keep rising as new iron mines are brought into production in future years.

Tonnage at Port of Saint John declined by 12.6 per cent, from 31.7 to 27.7 million tonnes, resulting primarily from Irving Refining’s decision to diversify its sources of crude oil by purchasing supplies of North American crude delivered via rail cars. In addition, shipments of LNG at its Canaport receiving terminal were lower in 2012. Partially offsetting these declines was a 14.1 per cent increase in the number of containers handled, to 50,672. That said, 2013 started out on a positive note, with year-to-date tonnage up by 8 per cent, resulting primarily from a 134 per cent increase in dry bulk shipments (mostly potash), and a 63 per cent increase in container tonnage volumes. Jim Quinn, President and CEO of Saint John Port Authority expects gains in potash shipments to continue, with anticipated 2014 shipments of that commodity to grow by a factor of two, compared to 2012. Also, continued gains are to be expected from the introduction of direct service by MSC in 2012, with many more N.B. exporters expected to take advantage of this service, rather than transporting containers to other export ports. Quinn anticipates that future marketing efforts aimed at generating higher import levels on its traditional North-South trade lanes will boost container volumes and other traffic.

Prince Rupert celebrated a historic milestone in November as Fairview Terminal surpassed its original design capacity of 500,000 TEUs annually after just five years of operation. During its first full year of operation in 2008, the terminal moved a modest 182,523 TEUs. The year-over-year growth has made the port the fastest growing container terminal in North America and one of the fastest in the world.

Containerized traffic rose last year in Halifax as did general cargo, which posted a 14 per cent increase. However, bulk shipments were down, including refined oil exports. Spokeswoman Michelle Peveril says that while the Port has diversified its shipment base so that 48 per cent of its business involves Asia, it still counts on Europe for 40 per cent of its business. The EU economic turmoil affected its results. “Containerized volumes varied widely all over North America because of uncertainties in the domestic and global economy,” she said. That makes Halifax regard its increase in 2012 in a positive light.

Cargo handled through Port of Hamilton continued to diversify in 2012, with strong showings in agricultural and project cargo, said Bruce Wood, Hamilton Port Authority President and CEO. Overseas cargo increased by 12.5 per cent while domestic and US shipments increased by 1.2 per cent. The Port’s expanding capacity in the agricultural sector has led to an increase in the sector’s share of the Port’s overall traffic mix to 16 per cent last year from 8 per cent in 2008. Finished steel increased by 25 per cent to 316,000 tonnes while iron ore reached 4 million tonnes, an increase of 15 per cent over 2011.

While Thunder Bay suffered a drop in coal shipments, it saw a resurgence of grain movements during the last few months of 2012 and is hopeful that with a large carryover stock of grain in Western Canada, strong grain shipments will continue, says CEO Tim Heney. Three key grain companies – Richardson, Viterra and Parrish & Heimbecker – all have considerable stakes in Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River terminals. The Port would also benefit from any move that brings ocean going vessels into the waterway and are looking for a backhaul cargo.

Windsor owes most of its traffic increase to the influx of aggregates for the construction of the highway that will connect with the new bridge to the United States. Lafarge Canada doubled the size of its terminal and the shipment of windmill components through the port has humped, says President and CEO David Cree.

Belledune saw its traffic slump after a key mine shut down. It still hopes that positioning itself as a connection to the Arctic will bring in new business.

Oshawa owes its big increase in traffic to a massive influx of steel for construction projects in Toronto, including a 150,000-tonne stockpile that arrived late in the season, a jump in project cargoes and shipments of highway salt.