By Leo Ryan, AJOT

The St. Lawrence Seaway has opened for business on an upbeat note thanks to an early start of commercial navigation and continued brisk demand from the US and Canadian steel industries.

At the March 23 opening ceremony in St. Catharines, Ontario, a major incentive was also announced: the reduction of lockage fees for new cargo on the Welland Canal to encourage shortsea shipping.

“What we want to do is attract cargo that has been by-passing the waterway, including feeder containerships,” Richard Corfe, President and CEO of the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, told AJOT. In addition, the Seaway will pursue its campaign of promoting the environmental benefits of the marine mode to relieve mounting gridlock and pollution on overburdened highways, he said.

The reduced lockage fees, calculated on a sliding scale, apply to all new cargo, which is defined as either containerized cargo or cargo which has not moved through the Welland Canal in an average annual volume greater than 10,000 metric tons between 2001-2003.

“Any cargo that qualified as new cargo will remain qualified for the reduction through the 2007 shipping season,” Corfe said.

The new fees will be calculated based on a vessel’s gross registered tonnage. For example, a 23,000 GRT ship will be entitled to a reduction of about 15% whereas the reduction will attain 75% for a 7,000 GRT vessel.

Coupled with the reduced lockage fees, the Canadian Seaway entity announced a 1.72% cargo toll and ship charge increase applying to both the Welland Canal and Montreal/Lake Ontario sections.

At the ceremony marking the start of the 47th Seaway season, Corfe was joined by his US counterpart, Albert Jacquez, local elected officials, and representatives from Canada Steamship Lines, owners of the first vessel to pass through the Welland Canal.

Via a network of 13 Canadian and two US locks, the St. Lawrence Seaway connects the Atlantic Ocean with the industrial heartland of North America. While US Great Lakes carriers confine their activities to the inter-Lakes trades, traffic to and from US Great Lakes ports carried by foreign-flag and Canadian ships accounts for over half of Seaway cargo volume.

Last year, overall Seaway traffic rose 6.5% to 43.5 million tons, with higher numbers for both ocean and domestic vessels and greater volumes in bulk and general cargo. A further increase of between 5 and 7% is anticipated in 2005.

There were several examples in 2004 of new shortsea business that could be significantly expanded - notably the movement of aluminum ingots from Sept-Iles, on the St. Lawrence River, to Toledo, Ohio via the Seaway instead of by rail, and Ontario grain moved by barge as opposed to truck between Prescott, Ontario and Sorel, Quebec.

For their part, Great Lakes/Seaway shipping firms appear mainly optimistic on the general traffic outlook for this year. At the same time, they are continuing to explore opportunities that could arise in overflow business reaching the East Coast due to the booming China trade saturating West Coast ports.

“For the 2005 season, all market sectors are indicating demand at or above 2004 levels,” said Wayne Smith, Vice-President Marketing and Vessel Traffic for Seaway Marine Transport, which operates the biggest fleet of self-unloader and bulk vessels - 34 ships in all - on the Great Lakes/Seaway System.

“Also positive news,” Smith said, “is the fact that water levels in the upper Great Lakes are presently above last year and this trend is expected to continue throughout the season.”

He recalled that the 2004 rebound was attributed primarily to a strengthening steel-producing sector in North America and increases in aggregate shipments throughout the Great Lakes.

However, Smith did see one dark cloud on the horizon - the proposal earlier this year by the Bush Administration to revive tolls in 2006 on the two US Seaway locks in Massena, NY as a means of financing Seaway operations and maintenance. US Great Lakes ports have been especi