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Canadian ports conference reviews wide spectrum of challenges


THUNDER BAY, Ont.–Staged at Ontario’s Lake Superior Port of Thunder Bay on Sept. 7-9, the 58th annual conference of the Association of Canadian Port Authorities (ACPA) covered a broad range of subjects from the challenges of reducing costs to maritime innovation and new channels of communication in a digital world. Sea the Superior Way was the overall theme – a catchphrase reflecting Thunder Bay’s key role as a Great Lakes gateway to eastern and foreign markets for Western Canada.

In an unexpected departure from the formal business agenda, sparks flew over high pilotage costs on the Great Lakes that can run in the tens of thousands of dollars for carriers entering the North American waterway through the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Rising up during a question period, Angus Armstrong, harbormaster and director of Security at the Port of Toronto, bluntly stated that in light of the significant advances in recent years of navigational equipment “pilotage today is a 19th century technology” that is undermining the competitiveness of the waterway in the industrial heartland of North America.

Armstrong expressed concern that a refusal to eliminate or reduce 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.”

In response, Capt. Mike Burgess, vice-president, Great Lakes region, of the Canadian Marine Pilots Association, took issue with such views and underlined the importance of maintaining the traditional expertise role of pilots for protecting marine safety and the environment.

“Pilotage is reviewed and examined on a continuous basis by Transport Canada and the industry,” Capt. Burgess said, adding that the Great Lakes Pilotage Authority reviews regulations and takes input from stakeholders.

“To make the system competitive, one has to work on costs, not just at one entity but the collective costs,” said Jim Athanasiou, Vice-President Engineering and Technology of Canada’s St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation. He recalled that the Seaway has been leveraging technology such as its internationally-acclaimed hands-free mooring system through the network of locks.

Blair McKeil, chairman and CEO of McKeil Marine, a leading Canadian tug and barge enterprise which recently added two bulk carriers to its fleet, stressed that “from a domestic fleet perspective, pilotage is doubling costs in compulsory zones.”

While he affirmed that “a lot of good things are happening on the Great Lakes,” pilotage costs were among “the dams in the system that hinder our efficiencies and increase our costs, inhibiting our competitiveness in the world-wide markets.”

McKeil also suggested that if driverless cars can become a new phenomenon on congested highways, the day may not be far off for autonomous vessels on the Great Lakes. He said that “this would help to solve our crewing issues, bring about meaningful cost reductions and efficiencies to make the system better.”

McKeil further suggested that the day was not far off “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.”

Debbie Murray, ACPA’s director of policy and regulatory affairs, said that “innovation is helping to reduce human error. Technology is driving innovation in the transport sector.”

In this connection, Jason Chesko, senior manager, global market development at Methanex Corporation, referred in particular to the growing trend towards “leaner and cleaner fuel” as shown by more and more ships being built powered by alternative and cost-competitive methanol fuel. “Methanol reduces emissions of sulphur oxides by 99%.”

Tamara Budge, associate director general, marine policy, summed up such Transport Canada initiatives as its “Clean Transportation” program.

The Canadian Transportation Agency’s chair and CEO, Scott Streiner, said that “new trade deals will reinforce trends in global shipping” before outlining its current Regulatory Modernization program and other changes in the ways it delivers services. The latter include not widely known mediation services free of charge, an example being mediation between a port and a railway company on an outstanding issue.

With energy transportation coming under increased scrutiny, this topic was addressed by Jacques Beauchamp, chief executive of Petro-Nav (which operates a shuttle service carrying Alberta light crude oil between Montreal and a refinery in Lévis, QC),  Stefan Baranski, regional director Energy East Ontario, and Richard Wiefelspuett, executive director for Vancouver-based Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping. As one panelist commented, “Safe and sustainable shipping is  vital to obtain social license.”

Rising activism on social media

Meanwhile, as pointed out by ACPA president Wendy Zatylny, activism in the social media through such platforms as Twitter and Facebook is not only increasing, it is becoming more strident. “And this can have a direct impact on port operations.”

Thus, members of a panel from the port and railway sectors stressed the importance of strong social media participation.

“There is often disparity between the informed public and the general population,” observed Robyn Crisanti, public affairs director of the Port of Vancouver. “Winning over elites is not enough.”

“It is critical to understand all the channels with a goal of building trust,” said Shaun Stevenson from the Port of Prince Rupert. “Our website is like a mothership. All channels offer an opportunity to engage with the public and customers,”

“People group around issues they are passionate about,” said Marie-Chantal Savoy, head of marketing innovation for CN, which has a substantial social media presence. “As you listen, you can identify and find your champion.”

According to Savoy, “powerful stories” are told via social media. And one should not overlook certain audiences – namely people over 60 years old and “women who dominate on every platform.”