MONTREAL – Clearing Canada’s bumper grain crop caused St. Lawrence Seaway traffic to spike in May as more than twice the normal number of ocean-going vessels passed through the waterway.
The Port of Thunder Bay had its busiest month in 16 years as more than 1.5 million tonnes of cargo, mostly grain, were moved.
The number of vessels passing through the northwestern Ontario port increased by 35 per cent from last May and included 26 ocean-going vessels – the most for any month since 2000 – and 44 domestic ships.
Watch: Seaway ice challenges
The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. said Tuesday that Canadian domestic ships were also busy transporting grain to Quebec ports to be loaded onto ocean carriers destined for markets in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa.
Bruce Hodgson, director of market development, said the seaway is playing a “critical role” in relieving the grain backlog that was built up over the winter.
“We’re seeing a huge spike in ocean vessels coming into the system and the Canadian Great Lakes fleet is going gangbusters to respond to orders from the grain companies,” he said in a news release.
“We’re optimistic that this activity will continue through the summer.”
The heightened activity came as the seaway’s 56th shipping season got off to its latest start in five years, toward the end of March, as harsh winter weather created some of the worst ice conditions in decades.
Canadian grain shipments from March 25 to May 31 were 1.4 million tonnes, up 2.4 per cent from the prior year.
Thunder Bay Port Authority CEO Tim Heney expects at least seven million tonnes of grain will pass through the port this year after the federal government ordered railways to move a maximum amount of grain.
“That has turned a lot of attention on Thunder Bay, so we’ve seen a big surge that demonstrates the capacity of the port,” he stated.
Shipments of stone, salt and general cargo were also strong during May, but total shipments year-to-date were down 20 per cent, largely due to lower shipments of iron ore.
Watch: Ships along the St. Lawrence in Montreal
Peter Rowe, vice-president of Minnesota-based food company Cargill Ltd., said the seaway’s capacity will help to meet strong export demand for the record grain crop.
Algoma Central Corp. said it expects its Great Lakes fleet to be working “flat out” for the rest of the year.
Two laid-up ships are being put into service and its new Algoma Harvester – the second of eight new large bulk carriers built in China that will be added in the next two years – will arrive in mid-July and be immediately deployed to carry grain. The ships are faster, consume 45 per cent less fuel, and remove most sulphur emissions are part of a $400-million investment by Canada’s largest Great Lakes shipping line.
The seaway expects at least 38 million tonnes of goods will move along the waterway this year, up from the 37 million tonnes transported in 2013.
A bumper grain crop of 76 million tonnes – 50 per cent more than average – should allow seaway shipments to increase this year after slipping 3.2 per cent in 2013 because the crop, although a record, was quite late.
© 2014 The Canadian Press