By Alex Binkley

More than 38 million tonnes of cargo passed through the St. Lawrence Seaway during 2021, up about one per cent from its 2020 results even though grain shipments dropped by 20 per cent compared to the previous year, The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. (SLSMC) says. Exports of Canadian and American grain accounted for more than a third of the total Seaway traffic in 2020 so the drought in key growing areas in western Canada and the U.S. during the 2021 growing season hit the Seaway hard and probably will be felt in 2022 as storage stocks are low. Canadian grain did match its 5-year average shipments level helped in part by increased exports of Ontario crops. Shipments of iron ore, steel slabs and other steel products for both the automotive and construction industries accounted for more than 10.5 million tonnes of the total traffic in 2021. “The results and the fact that we traded cargo with more than 50 countries, confirm the Seaway’s role as an important transportation corridor connecting North America’s largest industrial hubs to markets around the world, as well as in identifying export opportunities and contributing to the economic recovery,” said SLSMC President Terence Bowles.

Amongst other cargoes, shipments of petroleum products and other essential chemical products rose about 5 per cent during 2021 and are starting to return to more normal levels, Bowles said. Other cargoes such as stone, cement, potash and aluminum were also “At the Seaway, we continue to demonstrate our resiliency and operational sustainability. In spite of the many challenges experienced by the transportation industry this past year, the Seaway was able to maintain its operations and its position as a reliable commercial transportation corridor, ensuring consistent and predictable service for its customers and supporting the Canadian and U.S. economies during this difficult period.”

The Montreal-Lake Ontario section of the Seaway will open for ships on March 22, followed two days later by the Welland Canal and the Soo Locks on March 25. Twenty-two ships transited the Welland Canal during the first week of January 2022 in the third year of a five-year trial of extending the Canal’s shipping season. That was up from 20 during the first week of 2021. Bowles said that overall the 2021 season was “a success, providing carriers and shippers more sailing time to complete final cargo movements at year-end and position their fleet for reopening.”

Bruce Burrows, President and CEO of the Chamber of Maritime Commerce, said the cargo increase amidst the pandemic uncertainties and supply chain problems was good news as many of the worst-hit cargo sectors in the 2020 navigation season — iron ore, aluminum and steel — bounced back and some even surpassed 2019 levels. “Shipments of construction materials were booming as the Canadian and the U.S. economies recovered,” he said. “Without grain factored in, estimated overall tonnage numbers would be up almost 13 per cent.”

“Throughout the pandemic and amidst global supply chain disruptions, Great Lakes-St. Lawrence shipping once again proved it’s a reliable, ‘safe harbour’ in a storm. Our members not only delivered for their traditional bulk customers without delays, but some also cultivated new business opportunities by broadening their services for container shipments between cities and to overseas destinations. Our ports and their customers continued renewing, improving and expanding both their infrastructure and their business offerings. “But, we can’t be complacent. The economic and social repercussions that we’ve seen from bottlenecks and severe weather events in other parts of North America this past year reinforces how important it is for governments to work alongside industry to innovate and invest in economically-smart transportation solutions that boost supply chain resiliency and help reduce the future impacts of climate change.”

SLSMC credits the Seaway’s reliability in part to a robust maintenance program. Over the past navigation season and through the upcoming winter months, close to $70 million is being invested in maintenance and repair work. Over the past decade, SLSMC and its U.S. counterpart have invested $925 million in modernizing the binational Seaway infrastructure assets. This economic activity supports many local jobs and enterprises in the communities adjacent to the Seaway. The result is the Seaway is a world-class energy- efficient waterway, an essential transportation corridor for North American goods and services, as well as a strong environmental alternative to other modes of transportation,” Bowles said.

The Seaway is hopeful that the improving North American economy will bring it an increase in cargo during 2022. “However, much will depend on how well the pandemic and consumer habits evolve in the coming months. As key marine shipping stakeholders are now completing their planning for the year, the Seaway is currently in the process of reviewing its forecast for 2022.” The movement of goods will remain central to improved economic activity. “We are a world- class waterway, which is a strong environmental alternative and energy efficient essential transportation corridor for North American goods ready to assist in the economic recovery.” The Seaway has announced a two per cent increased in tolls and wharfage and storage charges for the 2022 navigation season.