‘Grain has saved our bacon’: How Great Lakes shipping has stayed afloat during COVID-19

By the end of September, shipments on the St. Lawrence Seaway were down 8 per cent from last year — but Thunder Bay is one of the ports that’s been buoyed by a specific kind of cargo
By Josh Sherman - Published on Oct 28, 2020
CSL Frontenac loading grain at the Port of Thunder Bay. (Michael Hull/Courtesy of the Chamber of Marine Commerce)

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“There’s, let’s see, one, two, three — four more on Lake Superior headed this way,” says Tim Heney on the morning of October 22. The president and CEO of the Thunder Bay Port Authority is counting the cargo ships that he expects to see arrive before the day's end. “Yeah, it’s busy.”

Already, a trio of vessels is anchored and another three ships are being loaded. For Heney, the constant activity at the port since the season began, around the start of spring, has been a welcome surprise — albeit an “eerie” one, he says, given that many businesses are struggling to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. If the waterway rush continues through to the end of the Great Lakes shipping season, which typically wraps up around Christmas Day, the Port of Thunder Bay will have shipped its highest per-tonne volume of goods in well over two decades. And it won’t be the only port to exceed expectations.

A lot was at stake for Ontario’s economy when the shipping season began, shortly after the province had declared a state of emergency. “The Great Lakes economy is pretty huge,” says Bruce Burrows, president and CEO of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, which represents more than 130 ports, companies whose goods travel along the seaway, and ship operators on both sides of the border. According to one study, ports in Ontario shipped and received more than 61 million metric tonnes in 2017, supporting 70,000 jobs and generating $10 billion of economic activity.

Although the combined tonnage of shipments on the St. Lawrence Seaway — considered to be a barometer of Great Lakes shipping activity — was 23.2 million tonnes between April 1 and September 30, down 8 per cent from last year, Thunder Bay is among the ports bucking that downward trend. Experts suggest that the shipping industry could have been hit much harder if not for a certain group of harvested seeds. “Grain has saved our bacon, because a lot of other commodities are down,” explains Burrows.

According to the chamber’s latest monthly report, 6.2 million tonnes of grain have sailed along the St. Lawrence Seaway this year. That’s a year-over-year increase of 20 per cent and includes shipments of wheat, corn, soybeans, canola, and, to a lesser extent, pulses such as peas and lentils. Neil Townsend, chief market analyst at FarmLink, a Winnipeg-based marketing consultancy for western Canadian grain farmers, notes that food-security concerns during the pandemic have boosted demand for these Canadian crops at home and abroad. “What we’ve seen with COVID-19 is that, both at the national level and at the individual level, people have indulged in a bit of stockpiling; people want to be ready,” says Townsend. “People, and also nation states, really want to make sure that they are pantry-prepared, have food on shelves — and pasta has a long shelf life.” Burrows notes the phenomenon as well: “Everyone’s buying bread and pasta during the pandemic.”

If western Canadian grain is being shipped east, there’s a good chance it will pass through Thunder Bay’s port — which straddles 35 kilometres of shoreline, making it one of the most expansive in the country. Its sizable facilities have served it well during COVID-19, Heney says. Combined, its seven hulking grain elevators in operation have a capacity of 1.1 million metric tonnes; as of last Thursday, the agrarian complex held 586,000 metric tonnes. “It’s got some of the biggest grain-storage capacity in North America,” says Heney.

Because of an international shipping-capacity glut, sources familiar with the industry say, more ocean-faring foreign-flagged cargo ships have been coming inland in search of work — something that’s also buoyed Canadian grain exports. Last year, Thunder Bay’s port saw 69 visits from ocean freighters, all of them flying foreign flags, between roughly March 25 and September 30; this year, during the same period, the number was 104. Heney adds that, because European countries limited exports of grain to protect domestic food supplies amid the pandemic, Canada got a competitive edge. “We’re one of the largest exporters in the world, and we’re not ever restricting our exports — there’s no way Canada can consume its own grain.”

Many other commodities have not fared so well: as manufacturing ground to a halt, steel and coal shipments (the latter of which is used to produce the former) declined; car-fuel demand dried up as Ontarians commuted less frequently; and jet-fuel orders remain down, with airlines effectively grounded. “It could’ve been a lot worse than down 8 per cent, but it’s still not a great year — there’s no question about that,” says Burrows, adding that many of his ship-operating chamber members have one or two vessels tied up at docks for lack of work.

Grain hasn’t been the only boon for the Ontario industry. For example, at the Port of Johnstown, on the St. Lawrence River, marine revenue had increased 30 per cent by the third quarter’s end, according to the Chamber of Marine Commerce. Robert Dalley, the port’s general manager, attributes the revenue surge to fees charged for the storage of 29 wind turbines, including 87 blades, at the port’s recently developed uplands facility. Often used for bulk items, such as road salt for eastern Ontario, the uplands have room to store large infrastructure components. “Those blades and those towers take up a huge amount of space,” says Dalley. And, as in Thunder Bay, grain has helped put the port on track for a record year in terms of tonnage.

Tom Anderson, director of marine operations for Algoma Central Corporation, a ship operator out of St. Catharines, has been busier than usual for very different reasons: he’s had to create and update safety-protocol materials for crews on Algoma’s domestic fleet, which is made up of 30 ships. “I typically don’t deal with global pandemics,” he says. As the pandemic has evolved, so, too, have Algoma’s policies: early on, shore leave was banned to reduce the risk of infection. Those restrictions eased as the province reopened, but some measures, such as cancelling shore leave in the GTA, were reintroduced when the second wave hit. “Probably the toughest part of the job is that we’ve had to restrict shore leave, and that’s a big thing for seafarers,” he says. “They’re out for extended periods of time; they’d like to get to shore just even to stretch their legs.”

Although Burrows expects the gap between this year and last year to narrow with a “pretty robust fall,” he suggests there may still be choppy water ahead. “If this … current second wave continues, it will probably be an eventual lag effect on us,” he says, suggesting that the impact may not be felt until early 2021. “Economically, it’s been a challenging year for sure, and we’re not out of the woods yet.”

At the moment, Algoma is operating “full-on,” Anderson says: the grain harvest has created work, and ore and stone shipments have picked up. But the pandemic’s resurgence isn’t the only concern on his radar. Winter is approaching, and extreme weather events can wreak havoc as wind and ice disrupt shipping schedules. “Despite all this COVID stuff,” he says, “there’s still Mother Nature going on.”

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