- By Leo Ryan, AJOT

After cargo plunged in 2009 to its lowest level in nearly five decades, the St. Lawrence Seaway appears poised to recapture some of its lost volume during the 2010 commercial shipping season that was recently launched.

Following the annual winter closing, the waterway linking the industrial heartland of North America to the Atlantic Ocean re-opened for business in late March, with Seaway officials forecasting a 10% to 12% increase in tonnage in 2010, thanks to signs of recovery in the steel industry.

Total Seaway volume in 2009 dropped by 25% to 30.7 million metric tons – the lowest level since 1961. This major decline was attributed chiefly to substantially lower shipments of iron ore and steel products.

Canadian shipping executives interviewed by AJOT expressed cautious optimism on the 2010 outlook.

“Spot world ore prices are pretty high at $130 a ton, and this is attractive for Seaway operators,” said Tom Brodeur, VP Marketing for Canada Steamship Lines. “There will likely be ore shipments from Quebec to China.”

 “The opening looked quite good with steel coming in and grain going out,” said Paul Pathy, Executive VP of Fednav Ltd., largest ocean-going user of the Seaway. “We will keep our fingers crossed for the rest of the year.”

With economic recovery from a punishing recession gaining traction, albeit more quickly in Canada than in the United States, the waterway appears to be bouncing back more quickly than was anticipated just a few months ago – thanks chiefly to a steel industry climbing out of a steep decline.

But Richard Corfe, president of the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, declared: “We do not harbour illusions as to the challenges that await us.”

In particular, he stressed the need to “redouble efforts” to both retain current users and diversify the client base.

In this connection, a shortsea tug/barge container service between the ports of Hamilton and Montreal that was launched last year did not meet expectations.

On the other hand, several ports on the Great Lakes/Seaway system, including Thunder Bay and Duluth-Superior have become new players in handling such niche business as wind turbines and mining equipment for Alberta oil sands projects.