Canadian and U.S. Great Lake ports are upbeat about cargo prospects in 2022.

Throughout US and Canadian ports on the Great Lakes, stakeholders involved in breakbulk activity are similarly upbeat over cargo prospects in 2022. This notably follows the solid increase in steel and iron ore cargoes that allowed the St. Lawrence Seaway to post a total throughput of 38 million tons in 2021, despite the decline in grain traffic. The 2021 total was slightly above the previous year as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to impact global supply chains, ports and transportation providers.

Last year, one should recall, grain crops suffered from drought conditions in western Canada and the US Midwest region.

On the breakbulk side, statistics on combined US and Canadian traffic from Seaway sources for individual items confirmed a dynamic trend. Iron and Steel was up 109% at 2,695,000 tons. Steel slabs climbed to 748,000 tons.

Terence Bowles, the president and CEO of the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC), anticipates a busy navigational season in 2022. “In 2021, volumes went up 1.6 per cent from the previous year, but if you remove grain from that equation because of the approximately 20% drop in harvest due to drought, everything else was almost 13% higher,” Bowles says. “So that gives us some idea of how much the economy has kicked up since the pandemic shutdown in 2020 and why we can be optimistic.”

Port of Thunder Bay handles a wide variety of project and breakbulk cargo.
The Port of Monroe is a growing hub for wind energy and breakbulk cargoes.

US Port Patterns

The Port of Cleveland saw a 69% increase in tonnage across its docks in 2021 compared to 2020. This surge was attributed to significant increases in non-containerized goods, containerized cargo, and iron ore shipments to the Cleveland-Cliffs Cleveland Works steel mill.

General cargo terminal volume, including steel and project cargo, surged by 57% to 650,000 metric tons. Containers handled doubled compared to 2020. A key contributor was Spliethoff’s Cleveland-Europe Express (see separate report covering container developments on the Great Lakes on page 30).

Early in 2021, the Port completed two major infrastructure projects that paved the way for the increased cargo volumes. First, the Port expanded its iron ore tunnel at the Cleveland-Bulk Terminal, providing additional capacity for the movement of iron ore. Additionally, the Port opened a new modernized and expanded main gate at its general cargo facility, which allows for the more efficient movement of trucks, decreases wait times for drivers, and more efficiently moves cargo on/off Port property.

Re-bounding from 2020’s pandemic-induced lows, total volume handled by the Port of Duluth-Superior rose to 32.9 million short tons in 2021- representing a 27% increase.

“We’re still waiting on the return to normalcy, but the tonnage bounce back was pronounced, driven especially by strong demand for domestic steel,” recently stated Deb DeLuca, executive director of the largest US Great Lakes port which is a major player in breakbulk as well as breakbulk cargoes.

Southern Wisconsin’s premier distribution hub for access to domestic and world markets, Port Milwaukee handles a wide variety of breakbulk and non-containerized cargo, including steel coils, wind turbine components, mining equipment and project cargoes. Last year, this port on Lake Michigan handled 11.2 million tons.

Industry analysts single out Port Milwaukee as a gateway with a significantly bigger dimension in the near future that will pay dividends for the agricultural community in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest. This stems from last fall’s ground-breaking on a nearly $35 million agricultural maritime export facility on Jones Island. Slated to be operational by April 2023, the latter will accommodate various agricultural commodities via truck, rail and international vessel.

The Ports of Indiana-Burns Harbor’s international tonnage increased 135% in 2021 over 2020, thanks in part to increases in steel slabs and steel coils.

On Lake Erie, the Port of Monroe is continuing to strengthen its role as a regional distribution hub for wind energy projects. Last year, some 132,066 tons of steel coils were handled by vessel, with additional tonnage coming by rail. The bulk and steel commodities handled by DRM Terminal Services represents the highest seasonal tonnage figure for the terminal operator since partnership began with the Port of Monroe in 2013.

Canadian Great Lakes Ports

The Hamilton-Oshawa Port Authority (HOPA), Canada’s largest port complex on the Great Lakes which handled 11.2 million metric tons in 2021, is looking forward to a strong year in 2022. “We grew overall volumes by about nine per cent last year over 2020, and definitely feel confident in this year’s shipments, particularly agricultural exports and steel imports,” said Ian Hamilton, HOPA’s president and CEO.

Finished steel imports from Europe and South America have remained brisk since they were first triggered by American tariffs. “We’re also paying attention to steel and other components required for the auto industry that normally come out of Ukraine or Russia,” Hamilton adds. “We believe there’s already a pent-up North American demand for automobiles (see RO/RO section), household appliances and other steel-related items.”

On the tip of Lake Superior, the Port of Thunder Bay is continuing to develop its niche in the breakbulk, project sector to complement its base cargo of grain.

While its total traffic in 2021 of 8.5 million tons was about 6% lower than 2020 due to lower grain volume, general cargo handled at the Keefer Terminal soared to 44.069 tons versus 17,146 tons in 2020. Shipments of steel products notably gained significantly along with phosphate fertilizer.

“Success in transporting general cargo, particularly valuable dimensional pieces, depends on safe and secure handling,” said port CEO Tim Heney.

In 2022, oversized cargo from Europe is expected with more wind-turbine installations scheduled for Alberta, which has become Canada’s most wind-powered province. “We’re also shipping components to Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories,” Heney adds.

In addition, increased activity in the Alberta oil sands is prompting orders for European piping and other components. The port continues to receive more rail products from Spain, with that trade establishing itself since the U.S. tariffs on steel. Likewise, specialty steel imports from Luxembourg and elsewhere in Europe are increasing to supply large construction projects

The Port of Windsor handled 4.2 million tons of cargo in 2021, with the breakbulk sector led by steel in the forefront. Steve Salmons, CEO of the Windsor Port Authority, said steel shipments for the year jumped 300% compared with 2020, to 200,000 tons, while aggregate shipments were up 12% to 1.5 million tons.

“The amount of steel and construction materials coming through the port tells you that our country is on the build, with roads, buildings and residential homes all under construction,” Salmons said. “There is a huge change in demand for steel. We had two ships delivering steel in 2020 and 12 ships (in 2021). It really speaks to the recovery of the Canadian economy. We fully expect ongoing construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge and local major road projects will once again keep steel and aggregate demand at sustained volumes”

The Port of Toronto experienced another good year in 2021, with brisk steel business and bulk imports of cement, sugar and salt moving through the port and directly into the heart of the city.

“We saw a marked increase in imports of steel cargo transiting through the port to construction sites throughout the Greater Toronto Area,” said Geoffrey Wilson, CEO, PortsToronto. “Whether providing the sugar for our coffee, the salt for our roads or raw materials, the Port of Toronto will continue to play an essential role in our national transportation chain in 2022.”