Aided by relatively minimal ice cover, United States and Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers made quick work of opening Great Lakes shipping lanes this spring, which led to a promising start for bulk cargo movement. Initial cargoes included coal, concrete, iron ore, limestone, salt and stone, which supplied power generation, steel manufacturing and construction projects throughout the Great Lakes region and beyond. Then COVID-19 tightened its grip on North America and much of the continent shuttered to inhibit spread of the novel coronavirus.
This led to a cascade of negative outcomes throughout the Great Lakes as automobile manufacturing halted, electricity usage diminished and project budgets evaporated. Demand for many of the aforementioned cargoes plummeted, leading to speculation about shrinking tonnages on the Great Lakes in 2020.
Several iron ore mines idled across northern Minnesota and Michigan and the same fate befell coal facilities, leaving lake freighters to briskly haul early-season stockpiles, then wait and wonder.
A brighter story played out in the early season grain movement from Thunder Bay (Canada) and the American port of Duluth-Superior at the westernmost tip of Lake Superior. After a delayed opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway due to high water levels and dangerously high outflows through the Moses-Saunders Dam, oceangoing vessels streamed across the Great Lakes for loads of wheat destined for locations still in the grips of COVID-19.
Duluth’s celebrated first saltie of the season, the Federal Churchill, arrived April 8 to load approximately 23,000 short tonnes of durum wheat bound for Italy. Two days later, Thunder Bay welcomed its first saltie of the season, Tufty, which also loaded durum wheat for Italian markets. Demand for wheat from the US and Canadian heartland continues to grow as consumers stockpile foods during lockdowns. The evidence of this consumption pattern was obvious as oceangoing vessels, sailing amidst heightened COVID-19 precautions, called early and often on the Great Lakes’ western ports.
“Commercial shipping across the Great Lakes is an essential component in the North American supply chain, and a critical component for the world, so the industry is doing all it can to overcome the challenges of COVID-19,” said Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority in Minnesota. “But there’s no doubt that it will be a challenging year.”