A surge of North American iron ore exports to Japan and China is keeping the St. Lawrence Seaway bustling in the critical months before the shipping season winds down, with over a million metric tonnes of iron ore pellets for export anticipated to be shipped via the inland waterway by the end of the shipping season. On a year-to-date basis, 4.5 million metric tonnes of iron ore were shipped through the Seaway, compared with just over 5.0 million tonnes during the same time in 2015.

“North American mining companies are seizing on opportunities to export iron ore pellets to serve steel production demand in Japan and China,” said Terence Bowles, President and CEO of The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation. “The Seaway is an important international trade conduit that provides efficient, cost effective transportation for industries like the mining sector.”

Iron ore pellet prices have been rising worldwide partly due to an undersupply following a serious accident and subsequent closure of the Samarco mine in Brazil last year, a joint venture of Vale and BHP Billiton. The iron ore exports are being sourced from mines in Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and picked up at the ports of Duluth-Superior (Minnesota), Escanaba (Michigan), Marquette (Michigan) and Conneaut (Ohio). Domestic carriers Canada Steamship Lines and Algoma Central Corporation are carrying the iron ore via the Seaway to the Port of Quebec, where it is then transferred to larger ocean-going vessels for onward transport to Asia.

The ore exports in combination with a steady flow of Canadian Prairie grain helped lift year-to-date Seaway cargo shipments (from March 21 to the end of October) to 25.8 million metric tonnes, which is 5 per cent below levels during the same period last year, but an improvement over earlier in the season.

“After a slow start to the season, our entire fleet is now booked out until the end of the year,” said Wayne Smith, Senior Vice-president of Commercial, Algoma Central Corporation. “We were able to move quickly to put more vessels into service to respond to the unexpected demand of iron ore exports. The shipping industry is also well-positioned to deal with the large volumes of Prairie grain expected to come through the waterway over the coming months.”

Shipments of Canadian and U.S. grain hit 7.6 million metric tonnes (from March 21 to October 31), in line with the healthy volumes experienced in 2015. Canadian prairie farmers are harvesting their second largest crop in history and the St. Lawrence Seaway is the key export channel to reach European, Middle Eastern and African markets.

Port of Thunder Bay reported a strong grain haul in October, a third more than its 10-year October average. “This is the third consecutive year that the port has experienced stellar grain shipments,” said Tim Heney, President and CEO of Thunder Bay Port Authority. “Harvests are becoming consistently larger due to changing farming practices and grain handlers are maximizing the investments they have made in Thunder Bay terminals over recent years by exporting more of that grain out through the Great Lakes-Seaway system.” 

Recently, another Canadian agri-business has established a presence at the port.  AGT Food and Ingredients is using a loop track facility to export lentils on ocean-going vessels directly to international markets.

Shipments of liquid bulk products, including petroleum, asphalt and other products, totalled 3.0 million tonnes, up 22 percent from 2015 levels. Other commodities, however, did not fare as well, with dry bulk, coal, iron ore and general cargo down by 10 to 18 per cent on a year-to-date comparison basis.