By Mark Cardwell

Double-digit declines in both the total amount of cargo and the number of vessels that passed through the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway system in the first full month of operation in 2013 are no reason for alarm, says a senior official with the corporation that operates the vital waterway. “Overall, yes, the numbers are down,” Bruce Hodgson, Director of Market Development for the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, told Canadian Sailings. “But we’re still early in the season. One shipload either way can greatly influence the numbers.”

According to the Seaway’s monthly traffic results for April, total cargo through both the Welland Canal and Montreal-Lake Ontario sections was 3.772 million tonnes or 788,000 tonnes less than a year ago, a drop of 17.3 per cent. The biggest declines were dry bulk (down 35.8 per cent to 824 tonnes), coal (down 34 per cent to 402 tonnes), iron ore (down 17 per cent to 982 tonnes), and grain (down 1.4 per cent to 807 tonnes). The total number of vessel transits fell from 494 in April, 2012 to 415 this year, a decline of 16 per cent. The only increase was liquid bulk traffic, which was up 34 per cent (to 522 tonnes).

According to Hodgson, the April data run counter to the Seaway’s forecast for 2013. “We see overall tonnage slightly below 40 million tonnes,” he said. That would be a slight increase, he added, over the total tonnage of 39 tonnes in 2012, which was a 4-per cent-increase over 2011.

Hodgson also downplayed the April declines in primary resources, especially iron ore. The decline mirrored the decrease reported by the Lake Carriers’ Association of 5.6 tonnes on the Great Lakes in April – a decrease of 9 per cent compared to a year ago. Loadings in U.S. ports, however, were up 11 per cent over the 5-year average for April. “The April total included 257,000 tonnes shipped to Quebec City for loading into oceangoing vessels and delivery overseas,” reads a May 16 press release from the LCA, which represents 17 U.S. companies that operate 57 U.S.-flagged vessels on the Great Lakes that carry more than 115 tonnes a year of iron ore, fluxstone, cement, coal and other essential trade goods. “Shipments from Canadian ports totaled 700,000 tonnes,” adds the release. “The decrease from a year ago – 36,000 tonnes – is the equivalent of approximately 1.3 cargos in a Seaway-sized laker.”

According to Hodgson, the forecast for iron ore in 2013 is that domestic demand will be up slightly thanks to a strong U.S. auto industry. He added, however, that exports of the steel-making raw material are expected to decline as a result of manufacturing slowdowns in world markets, especially in China. “Iron ore is a volatile market,” said Hodgson. “Demand goes up and down with commodity prices.”

With regard to grain, he considers the 100,000-tonne decline in April to be insignificant.

“That’s only four vessel loads,” said Hodgson. He noted, however, that the recent end to the Canadian Wheat Board’s control over volume will create a new dynamic for the future movement of the grain through the Seaway system. “It has gone from a push supply chain to a pull system that is now driven by demand,” said Hodgson. “So we expect to see more peaks and valleys in the flow of volumes, but the overall tonnage will remain stable.”

For their part, ports on the Seaway appear both unaffected and nonplussed by the decline in the April tonnage numbers. “We haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary,” said Yves Gilson, a spokesperson with the Port of Montreal. “It’s business as usual this year. In fact, it’s actually a little bit better than usual.” In addition to a slight .5-per-cent bump (to 3.9 tonnes) in containerized traffic over the first four months of 2013 compared to 2012, Gilson said Seaway-related dry bulk – notably grain, sugar, salt, fertilizer and recycled metals – is up 2.2 per cent. And volumes of liquid bulk that have transited through the port so far this year – notably diesel, petroleum and jet fuel – are up a whopping 57 per cent over last year. “Demand for refined petroleum products in on the rise,” said Gilson. “So we are very optimistic with regard to the volume of cargo we’ll see going through our facility this year.”