Answering shipping’s biggest questions as the Great Lakes open up – Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH – The Great Lakes boating season begins Friday night, ending the two-month winter off-season.

Signs were evident Wednesday as U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers and tugs cleared lanes for transiting lake freighters in places such as Whitefish Bay, on the east end of Lake Superior, and the Port of Duluth. -Superior.

The season begins after last season’s rebound from pandemic lows. But it would be foolhardy to guess what awaits us.

“We don’t do economic forecasts because they’re virtually impossible to predict,” said Eric Church, vice president of the Lake Carriers Association, which represents U.S.-flagged vessels on the Great Lakes.

Church noted the Russian invasion of Ukraine and continued supply chain disruptions as variables in the coming season. He also cited the $1 trillion federal infrastructure act passed in 2021 as something that should boost traffic between U.S. ports on the Great Lakes.

“We will continue to ship iron ore, limestone, sand, cement and aggregates, and with federal infrastructure dollars, we’re hoping for a good year,” Church said.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Neah Bay heads into the Duluth Harbor Basin on Wednesday.

Dan Williamson/Duluth News Tribune

The start of the new season brings with it a host of questions.

To answer some of the biggest questions, the News Tribune spoke to Church, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and the Mankato, Minnesota-based Specialty Soya and Grains Alliance, which is closely watching the local port as it enters its first season. complete with an ability to handle container cargoes transported by water at the Port Authority’s Clure Public Marine Terminal. Previously, these cargoes were largely the domain of Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio, and the port of Oswego, New York, on Lake Ontario.

What does the iron ore trade look like in 2022-23?

“A good thing is that the iron ore supply chain has never been interrupted,” Port Authority executive director Deb DeLuca said, while noting some production disruptions at the mines themselves. same.

The port of Duluth-Superior saw 20.4 million short tons of ore shipped in 2021-22 – marking the second time in four years that the port has eclipsed the 20 million ton mark, which the port has done to the last time in the 1990s.

“We had a good year last year,” DeLuca said, noting that blast furnace utilization rates in the lower Great Lakes continue to be above 80%. “Iron Ore should have a pretty decent season – that’s my only bold prediction.”

Why should a person follow Ukraine, Russia and China closely when thinking about Great Lakes sailing?

DeLuca called Ukraine “a huge breadbasket” and the Russian invasion has made it unclear how much planting will even be done this season.

“First and foremost, it’s hard to see what’s going on there,” DeLuca said of the invasion.

Shipping companies are boycotting Russia, and new rounds of COVID-19 outbreaks in China are closing some ports there. All of this will have cascading effects across the world.

“It’s going to be an interesting expedition year,” DeLuca said. “Supply chain disruptions don’t resolve quickly. … We don’t know what will happen to their grain (in Eastern Europe). We will have to watch and see what develops there.

How close is Duluth’s Clure to becoming a regular container shipping port?

Hard to know, but it’s closer than ever.

Most local residents have become accustomed to the wind turbine blades and major components of the project passing through the public marine terminal at Clure. But last year the Port Authority announced that it had also met the requirements to accept sea freight containers.

Shipping containers.
Shipping containers are stacked at the public Clure Marine Terminal in Duluth on Sunday.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

Until recently, the Port Authority’s multimodal service with Lake Superior Warehousing, Duluth Cargo Connect, only handled container freight passing through the terminal by truck and rail.

But the addition of ocean freight containers has the specialty grain market eyeing uptake of the service.

Earlier this month, new capacity at the local port was among the topics of a transportation conference in Milwaukee, where the accelerating pace of U.S. exports of wheat, commodities and oilseeds was a hot topic. due to changes in the Eastern European market. Additional shipments of corn exports were also noted from the Great Lakes.

“Duluth has a great team and an intermodal rail section that gives me and the company members great confidence,” said Eric Wenberg, executive director of the Specialty Soya and Grains Alliance, a national business association focused on getting field crops to markets around the world.

“What they need to do is complete the last rail-sea link,” Wenberg added.

This means that Duluth-Superior cannot be a single export terminal for container shipments. For the local port to thrive in a containerized freight market, it will need to have imports to balance Midwest grain productions and other exports.

“There is no export terminal,” Wenberg said, referring to the need to balance service with imports. “Making Duluth and the Duluth Terminal succeed will require finding the goods that Minnesotans want to buy – that Minnesota businesses need to get their manufacturing started – and bringing them to Duluth.”

Wenberg hoped to see agricultural products like cranberries or beans leave Duluth by container this season. The Great Lakes have long struggled to break into traditional logistics patterns due to industries’ reliance on coastal ports and apathy for a closed shipping route in the colder months.

But difficulties with supply chains throughout the pandemic have shifted the paradigm, and the return of an unconstrained transportation system is not likely, Wenberg said. This forces industries to think differently and reconsider the Great Lakes as an option.

“We have to be aware that Minnesotans are going to buy overseas and need imported raw materials,” Wenberg said. “We need to have an attitude of openness, willingness to have conversations about this. We need to include in our advocacy efforts that to get the cargo out, we need to make allowances…and connections to help those who are trying to get products into our state. We never thought of that before.

Wenberg suggested it could be several months before containerized freight providers begin to rely more on the Great Lakes. DeLuca declined to give a guess.

“We’re working on the service,” she said.

What about the Coast Guard Cutter Spar bound for Duluth, and also the possibility of another heavy icebreaker, similar to the Mackinaw, being built for the Great Lakes?

The Coast Guard announced this month that Cutter Spar was bound for her new homeport in Duluth.

A review of vessel tracking services showed the Spar had passed Montreal in the St. Lawrence Seaway and was approaching Lake Ontario on Wednesday afternoon.

The Spar replaces the Cutter Alder, which returned to service in the Bay Area on the West Coast last summer.

The loss of Alder left Duluth-Superior without an icebreaker asset this winter.

And while the Coast Guard was able to muster assets to clean up the harbor, the US shipping industry has been fishing for another heavy icebreaker for years.

There is a bill in the United States House of Representatives that would study the Coast Guard’s mission on the Great Lakes and its role in inland icebreaking.

After years of opposing a new $350 million Great Lakes icebreaker, Coast Guard leaders recently testified to Congress that it was badly needed.

Coast Guard vessel traveling in ice
The US Coast Guard Cutter Hollyhock cuts through the ice of Lake Superior before reaching the entrance to Duluth on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

Dan Williamson/Duluth News Tribune

“They changed their tone,” Church said.

Historically, the Coast Guard’s priorities on the Great Lakes have been search and rescue missions, as well as emergency responses to community needs, such as flooding. Maintenance of aids to navigation was also a higher priority than icebreaking, which was consistently ranked fourth.

Church believes years of lobbying have helped elevate icebreaking, which he considers necessary for the economy and national security.

The Ottawa-based Chamber of Marine Commerce announced Wednesday that it is honoring Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and the Senses. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Todd Young, R-Ind., with the Great Lakes Marine Commerce Awards for supporting the Great Lakes Winter Commerce Act — the legislation that will further define and codify the Coast Guard’s responsibilities for icebreaking on the Great Lakes.

“I secured seed funding for a Great Lakes icebreaker in the last six appropriations bills and authorship language that established a major acquisition program office for the Great Lakes icebreaker within the Coast Guard,” Baldwin said. “But we still have work to do.”

Shipping containers.
A stacker moves a shipping container through the Clure Public Marine Terminal in Duluth on April 20, 2021.

Steve Kuchera/Dossier/Duluth News Tribune

People watch as a Coast Guard tug crosses the ice
People watch from the north pier in Duluth Harbor as the U.S. Coast Guard’s Neah Bay breaks through the ice of Lake Superior toward the overhead lift on Wednesday.

Dan Williamson/Duluth News Tribune

    The ship passes under the lift bridge
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Hollyhock moves under the airlift in Duluth on Wednesday.

Dan Williamson/Duluth News Tribune

Coast Guard vessels sail through the ice of Lake Superior
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Hollyhock, left, and the U.S. Coast Guard Neah Bay break through the ice of Lake Superior while heading to Canal Park in Duluth on Wednesday.

Dan Williamson/Duluth News Tribune