MONTREAL, Que.—-The opening of the 2015 commercial shipping season on the bi-national St. Lawrence Seaway has been delayed for a week to April 2 due to a second year in succession of exceptionally heavy ice conditions in the winter and early spring. But different scenarios have emerged on the forecast cargo outlook and on the impact of weather patterns in the St. Lawrence/Great Lakes region.
In an interview, Bruce Hodgson, market development director of Canada’s St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, indicated that “our best estimate is that 2015 may not match 2014 in grain and total volume.”
Last year, the Seaway managed to achieve a post-recession high of nearly 40 million tonnes of cargo. Biggest factor was a late surge in grain shipments. This was one of the factors contributing to an unprecedented influx of foreign-flag ocean vessels into the waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the industrial heartland of North America.
Hodgson sees the transit of ocean vessels this year remaining “strong” thanks to continuing brisk steel imports and general cargo.
“General cargo will be a bright spot, driven by the growing US economy and the auto sector, with steel imports spurred by the strengthening US dollar,” according to Hodgson.
As regards project cargo, Hodgson says “we see ongoing activity into western Canada, despite the low oil prices.”
On the other hand, prospects remain flat for iron ore, traditionally a leading commodity moved through the Seaway. In 2014, iron ore traffic plunged by 32% to 6.7 million tonnes.
“World iron ore prices,” notes Hodgson, “are just too low. We are unlikely to see exports of iron ore. What we will see will be for domestic consumption.”
As for grain, he regards this as a “big question mark.” There will be a “large carryover” from last summer’s crop but demand on world market conditions for this summer’s crop is difficult to measure at this time. The 2014 grain throughput had risen 44% to 12 million tonnes.
Meanwhile, winter’s unrelenting sub-zero temperatures in January and February had prompted Rear Admiral F.M. Midgette of the US Coast Guard for the Great Lakes region to issue a blunt warning in early March to the US and Canadian shipping communities to anticipate substantial delays, urging carriers to curtail early operations.
“This year,’ he said, “ we are well above the 30-year average in total ice cover. In fact, the current total ice cover of 84% (a record) exceeds the 79.8% coverage this same week one year ago,”
However, expanded regional cooperation between the Canadian and US coast guards is well in progress. In one instance in late February, two Canadian Coast icebreakers, the CCGS Griffon (per photo) and the CCGS Samuel Risley helped to dramatically free a US freighter, the Arthur M. Anderson trapped for five days in up to seven feet of jagged icefields in southern Lake Erie.
Fortunately, the Rear Admiral’s fear that ice cover and thickness would continue to increase in March did not materialize.
“What has helped this year is the fact that, despite the extreme cold, there has been not as much snow on the ice and good sunny periods have been melting the ice more quickly,” indicated Capt. Michel Dufresne, the Canadian Coast Guard’s regional superintendent of icebreaking, escort and flood control.
In recent weeks, total ice coverage on the Great Lakes has been steadily receding, although on March 17, for instance, the waters around Detroit, Windsor and Sarnia were still surrounded by what is called ‘fast ice’ (virtual ice blanket and no open channels).
Shipping lines highly vigilant over Coast Guard icebreaking services
Observers do not expect navigational challenges to all disappear in the days leading up to and immediately following the Seaway opening on April 2.
And in this connection, while extolling the performance of the Canadian Coast Guard crews with existing equipment, associations representing shipping lines active on the waterway remain highly vigilant and are continuing to clamour for a significant increase in the capacity of an allegedly “obsolescent” fleet to mitigate delay-related costs.
Sharp criticisms surfaced last year after several ships were unavailable because of winter maintenance and the region’s Coast Guard fleet of 18 units operated at about two-thirds capacity. In one incident, two vessels imprisoned in ice off Rimouski on the St. Lawrence River had to wait for six days for Coast Guard icebreaker help.
“While we’re hopeful that last year’s severe conditions have resulted in many process and task improvements, industry can’t help but believe more Coast Guard icebreakers – particularly the addition of heavy assets for the Seaway and Great Lakes – would bring about the most profound increases in overall ice-clearing performance for the region,” stated Stephen Brooks, President of the Chamber of Marine Commerce. which represents both shippers and carriers using the Great Lakes/Seaway System.
Same message from the Canadian Shipowners Association , which is closely monitoring the situation. “It remains our position that icebreaking capacity must be enhanced, through either new asset purchase or leasing of available assets,” said Debbie Murray, director of policy and regulatory affairs.