By Alex Binkley

Robin Silvester, President and CEO of Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, probably spoke for many in the marine sector when he reflected on the past year. “In many ways, these last twelve months have felt as eventful as the last twelve years. 2020 has been one for the history books.”

The pandemic, broad lockdowns, railway blockades, and shipping disruptions were just some of the challenges Canada Port Authorities faced last year. Speaking in December at a gathering of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, he added that many ports also took a revenue hit in the cancellation of ocean cruises, which will continue into 2022. Despite the turmoil, Vancouver is expecting its 2020 tonnage to slightly exceed its 2019 result of 144.2 million tonnes, Silvester said. Although his port saw reduced auto import volumes due to decreased consumer spending, on the plus side, grain exports ran 25 per cent over normal years.

Somewhat surprisingly under the circumstances, total 2020 port volumes of 346 million tonnes as reported by the 17 Canadian Port Authorities declined by only 0.7 per cent from the record tonnage of 348.6 million tonnes set in 2019. Average annual volume growth during the past ten years was 2.1 per cent.

In addition to the pandemic and other disruptions, Port of Montreal was hit by strikes by dock workers. As a result, its tonnage fell 13.5 per cent to 35.1 million tonnes. Talks between and the workers’ union broke off again in mid-February raising the danger of renewed strike action in March 21 if mediation efforts are unsuccessful.

Container shipments dropped by 5.7 per cent while liquid bulk shipments dropped 24 per cent and bulk goods declined 10 per cent except for grain exports. The Port said “the last quarter of 2020 was marked by an encouraging recovery, notably in containerized trade with Asia and in the handling of certain dry bulk commodities such as iron ore and grain.”

Port of Sept-Iles said 2020 handled 33.1 million tonnes of cargo, its best year since 1974 and it expects to come close to 38 million tonnes in 2021 as demand for iron ore grows.

Buoyed by a nine per cent traffic increase, Prince Rupert Port Authority handed 32.4 million tonnes of cargo compared to 29.8 million tonnes in 2019. President and CEO Shaun Stevenson said increased exports of coal, propane, pellets and propane led the way. “Factory shutdowns in Asia and locked down economies in North America caused a 19 per cent drop in container traffic in the second quarter. However, volumes rebounded and DP World’s Fairview Container Terminal finished a mere six per cent below 2019 with 1.1 million TEUs.

Port of Quebec handled 27 million tonnes of freight, down 7 per cent from its 2019 total, which was mostly due to reduced petroleum product consumption associated with lockdowns and the economic slowdown. Volumes were relatively stable for iron ore, and new records were set for gypsum handled and cement imports. Dry bulk linked to the agrifood industry jumped 54 per cent. The new Sollio Agriculture grain terminal started operations in 2020.

Port of Saint John posted a two per cent increase in cargo to just under 26 million tonnes, said Port President and CEO Jim Quinn. Container traffic rose by 19 per cent, the fourth consecutive year of growth in the port’s container volumes. Both liquid bulk and bulk cargoes rose as well last year.

Hamilton-Oshawa Port Authority said with the extra week of operations through the Welland Canal, it recorded a total tonnage of 10.6 million tonnes in its first official year of combined operation. HOPA President & CEO Ian Hamilton said after a slow start, the ports recorded an extremely busy 4th quarter and closed the season on a decidedly optimistic note. The Hamilton operation saw declines in steelmaking and petroleum traffic offset by strong showings in commodities like grain, fertilizer, salt and gypsum. Oshawa had its best ever year driven by strong trade in fertilizer, grain, steel and cement.

Port of Thunder Bay recorded its most successful year in more than two decades with 10.2 million metric tonnes due in large part to strong exports of Prairie grains. Overseas demand drew more than 150 foreign vessels to the port for grain, the second-highest tally since the Seaway opened in 1959.

Port of Halifax handled 8.3 million tonnes, a drop from 2019 but not as severe as originally expected. Several factors affected cargo volumes in 2020 including reduced wood pulp exports, rail disruptions early in the year, industrial action at other ports, and the ongoing global pandemic which continues to disrupt supply chains but led to a surge in the second half.

Port of Windsor handled 4.5 million tonnes, down 3.9 per cent from 2019, but traffic picked up during the final months of the year. “Overall, the impact of COVID on economic activity within the port largely reflects trends in the Canadian economy,” said President Steve Salmons who acknowledged significant decreases in the first two quarters of the year that were substantially reversed in the last two quarters of 2020. Calls by foreign vessels were up 20 per cent as ships arrived to collect grain for export.

Port of Trois Rivieres handled 3.3 million tonnes, down from its record of 4.2 million tonnes set in 2019 but in line with the average of the last five years. Dry bulk traffic represented 85 per cent of the total tonnage, liquid bulk with 300,000 tonnes and general cargo 170,000 tonnes. “As we all know, this past year has been difficult for everyone, we have all had to adjust to new realities,” said Gaetan Boivin, President and CEO.

Port of Nanaimo reported about 3.4 million tonnes of traffic with major declines in shipments of forest products, and smaller declines in containers and petroleum products and modest growth in chemicals.

Ports Toronto recorded more than 2 million tonnes of freight, said President and CEO Geoffrey Wilson. “We saw an increase in imports of sugar and cement, as well as an impressive 33 per cent increase in steel cargo, including steel coils, rebar, plates and rail from Sweden, Spain and Turkey transiting through the port to Toronto’s booming construction sites.”

Port of Belledune dropped to just over 1.7 million tonnes from 2.6 million tonnes in 2019 due mainly to the shutdown Glencore Brunswick Smelter in 2019 and NB Power’s six month shut down, which accounted for about two-thirds of the cargo drop. The port ended the year on a high note recording the highest traffic month in its 53-year history in December, said Vice-President Jenna MacDonald.

Port of St. John’s dropped about 200,000 tonnes to 1.5 million tonnes with container shipments and offshore energy supplying affected by the economic slowdown.

Carl Laberge, Director General of Saguenay Port Authority, said that while his Port’s 2020 volumes were down by 15 per cent from 2019’s record of 645,200 tonnes, there some bright spots including an increase in shipments of wood pellets to UK power plants.

Port Alberni’s tonnage dropped to 571,000 tonnes in 2020 from 984,000 tonnes in 2019, said Mike Carter, Director of Operations. The decline can mainly be traced to a labour dispute between Western Forest Products and its workers that curtailed harvesting. A depressed global market for wood added to the low prices and reduced production.