By William Hryb

From September 6 to 9, Port of Thunder Bay showcased its natural harbour and vital maritime link discovered by explorers such as Radisson & Groseilliers some three and a half centuries ago. On the occasion of the 58th annual ACPA Conference (Association of Canadian Port Authorities), the Port illustrated in exemplary fashion that its facilities represent a truly superior gateway and vital lifeline to Eastern markets for Western Canada and beyond.

Wendy Zatylny, President of the Association opened the conference by saying, “It is not a coincidence that most of the top cities in the world are also port cities…New York, London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Stockholm and Toronto have grown on the strength of ports … there is no doubt that economic activity of the ports – gritty and noisy as it might sometimes be, helps build the foundation for a city’s greatness”.

As world-wide trade becomes more personal and interconnected it is crucial that a robust transportation network is in place and that is exactly where the port of Thunder Bay is positioning itself. “We welcome attendees from coast to coast to Canada’s furthest inland port, Thunder Bay, at the head of the St. Lawrence Seaway System … As a trading nation, Canadian ports are the heart of the global supply chain and an essential component of the country’s economy” said Tim Heney, Chief Executive Officer of Thunder Bay Port Authority.

Founded in 1958, ACPA brings related marine interests and ports together into one national association. The Association of Canadian Port Authorities represents all national port authorities, various government groups and companies who have a vested stake in the marine sector. Since the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, ACPA has been the leading proponent and promoter of the Canadian Port Industry.

The smooth flow of goods through Canada’s ports was the key target and theme for this year’s conference and judging by the participation and topics covered, it was an overwhelming success. With Thunder Bay at the head of a water network that stretches a whopping 3,700 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Superior, it is no secret that Thunder Bay is the natural hub, ensuring a variety of grains, oilseeds and pulses from vast growing areas in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are shipped to all parts of the world.

Handling cargoes valued at some $400 billion annually, ACPA members hold the distinction of making important contributions to a wide range of national, regional and local Canadian interests, contributing to employment op­portunities for thousands of people in such fields as freight forwarding, accounting and legal services, custom brokering, warehousing, ship chandlering, agents to tug boat operators, and many others. In a globalized economy, the vast majority of goods and commodities – from high tech electronics to fruits to finished textiles to enormous quantities of grain move by ship.

At this year’s conference the ACPA honoured Richardson International Limited with its Medal of Merit Award. A trail blazer in the grain industry since 1857, the company has developed into the largest agribusiness in Canada. The family- operated behemoth was the first company to handle western-grown grain and build elevators in Western Canadian communities. The company set a precedent when its first grain elevator practically revolutionized the handling and loading of grain.

Almost a century ago, a visionary James Richardson chose the site for the Richardson terminal to be built in Thunder Bay. “Richardson International Limited is truly a Canadian-grown success story…the company recognizes the value in marine shipping and has invested heavily in a transportation system, and plays a significant role in several ports across Canada with port terminals in Vancouver, Hamilton, Sorel, Prince Rupert and Thunder Bay,” said Wendy Zatylny.

“Richardson has had a presence on the Seaway System for over 150 years and a significant presence in Thunder Bay;” said Tim Heney, who added that “The company has consistently been among the top shippers of cargo from the port of Thunder Bay”.

At this year’s conference, topics like Maritime Innovation and Energy were front and center during the four day meeting. Jason Chesko, Senior Manager of the Global Market Development of Methanex Corporation outlined why methanol is the marine fuel of the future. Delegates learned that methanol, typically made form natural gas, is cost- competitive, has low emissions and has wide availability and is 100 per cent renewable. With rising fuel costs, shipowners are quickly realizing that this emerging power source is the innovation they require to be competitive in a highly cost-sensitive industry.

Among the highlights of the conference was the presentation given by Blair McKeil, Chairman and CEO of McKeil Marine. The 60-year old company is a leading Canadian tug and barge business that has grown 20 per cent every year for the last five. “Our family business was started in 1956, when my father and grandfather launched a wooden boat named ‘MicMac’ in Hamilton harbour … with the St. Lawrence Seaway under construction, Dad saw an opportunity” said McKeil.

“How do we make the Great Lakes great again?” was McKeil’s topic that resonated both optimism and trepidation. While he recognized that “a lot of good things are happening on the Great Lakes’, he lamented that “pilotage costs are the dams in the system that hinder our efficiencies and increase our costs, inhibiting our competitiveness in world markets”. McKeil reached into his innovative spirit and suggested that, “a day will come in the not too distant future for UBER – like cargo on the Great Lakes, especially for short-haul cargoes…think about it, ports will post available cargoes on quasi UBER platforms and see who can move it”, he said.

Rancor over pilotage costs stirred a quiet crowd when Angus Armstrong, Harbour Master and Director of Security at Port of Toronto stated that significant progress in recent years of navigation equipment is the catalyst for change … “pilotage today is a 19th century technology that is undermining the competitiveness of the waterway in the industrial heartland of North America”. Armstrong conveyed concern that refusal to reduce or eliminate compulsory pilotage could compromise the future of international shipping on the Great Lakes. “Where are the cost savings, when regulations don’t reflect technology? … they are killing the golden goose”, he said. With Seaway cargo volume down almost 10 per cent at the end of July, stakeholders were becoming concerned over the downturn. (August, however, saw volumes return to respectable levels).

Wendy Zatylny opined that …”part of it is simply the cost of actually transiting the cargo, bringing it along the length of the St. Lawrence and say all the way up to Thunder Bay and back out again,” but added that “The pilotage fees, the lockage fees all add up.”

With that in mind, Zatylny said the outlook for shipping is positive. “We are consistently looking across Canada, on average, at a steady three to five percent growth in port throughput. Overall, the trend is towards consistent, moderate growth. If you look at what Canada is doing with its trade agenda, the new trade agreements that are being negotiated, the potential for exports as well as population growth, we are very much forecasting a strong future for shipping.” Zatylny said.

After the conference, Canadian Sailings sat down with Tim Heney for a question and answer interview:

CS: What do you think the conference accomplished over the course of the meetings?

Tim Heney:  Our objectives for holding the conference in Thunder Bay included raising the profile of the Port and its capabilities to attendees, to raise awareness of the St. Lawrence Seaway System, to provide an opportunity for learning and fellowship. Given the reaction to our guests I consider the event to have delivered on all of these fronts.

CS: Give us an idea of what you see, as the Port of Thunder Bay’s role or importance in the maritime community in the next five years or so …

Tim Heney: Thunder Bay will continue to be a key port for Western Canadian grain exports, and I believe we will continue to operate at the higher levels witnessed over the past two seasons. Our project and general cargo shipments will continue to grow. One hundred forty five attended the conference and I was surprised by the number that had never been to Thunder Bay or had last visited many years ago. I believe they were pleasantly surprised by the size of the port and the natural beauty of the area.

The next conference is scheduled for September 18 – 21, 2017, and will be held in Vancouver, B.C.