By Brian Dunn

During pandemic-stricken 2020, traffic through the Seaway declined by less than two per cent, with the corridor handling 37.7 million tonnes in 2020, compared to 38.7 million handled in 2019. “Considering the impact of the worldwide pandemic, we are very pleased with these results,” Terence Bowles, President and CEO of The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC) said in an interview before the official opening of the 2021 season on March 22. CSL Group’s Baie St. Paul, a Trillium-class Laker, was the first ship through the St. Lambert Lock in a virtual opening ceremony attended by a number of dignitaries, including Omar Alghabra, the Canadian Minister of Transport, and Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

“While the economic volatility from COVID-19 impacted the marine industry, we had a pandemic response committee in place to deal with it. We also worked with carriers and shippers to maximize cargo opportunities,” Mr. Bowles added. “The Seaway’s resiliency and agility in operating allowed it to handle numerous shipments of steel slab, and to ship a record grain crop in 2020.”

The impact of the pandemic differed by cargo type. Liquid bulk saw the sharpest decline, from 4.6 million tonnes to three million tonnes, a drop of 34.4 per cent, followed by iron ore, down by 27 per cent, from 6.9 million tones to six million tonnes. Dry bulk shipments of 10.5 million tonnes were down 9.4 per cent. “Liquid bulk includes jet fuel and automotive fuel which was way down because travel was way down,” noted Mr. Bowles. “Dry bulk includes cement and stones for construction which was also down.”

On the plus side, grain shipments rose 27 per cent to 13.3 million tonnes from 10.4 million tonnes. General cargo shipments of 2.2 million tonnes were up 3.2 per cent from 2019, while coal shipments of 2.4 million tonnes were up almost two per cent. “Grain did extremely well, because we had a strong inventory built up in silos in Thunder Bay. Moreover, poor harvests in Russia and Latin America created strong demand. And wind turbine business was strong out of Duluth and Toledo.”

The current shipping season should see a vast improvement as economies are picking up. “A month ago, the pandemic was still rampant and things were not looking good. But vaccinations are picking up speed globally and the U.S. GDP (gross domestic product) is projected to increase by 6.5 this year, along with Canada at five per cent and the EU at four per cent. So we are bullish for the current year.”

SLSMC has several toll incentive programs to attract new or increase existing business, including the New Business Incentive, Volume incentive, Service Incentive and the latest initiative, the Gateway Incentive, offering shippers reductions in toll rates to attract business from alternative routes. All told, these programs brought in $2 million of additional business last year.