The Great Lakes need a new maritime strategy — and fast

By Sarah Reid - Published on Jun 28, 2016
A maritime strategy developed by Great Lakes region leaders lays out recommendations to increase shipping.



Untapped economic potential and environmental concerns are the driving forces behind a new maritime strategy for the Great Lakes, the first of its kind.

“In order to remain competitive in today’s global markets, we need to improve and expand the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence maritime transportation system,” Premier Kathleen Wynne said when she announced the strategy along with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on June 15.

The Great Lakes regional economy was worth US$5.8 trillion in 2015 and would be the third largest economy in the world if it were a country, according to a recent BMO report. “The economic importance of the region can’t be overstated,” it says.

But not enough is being done to promote maritime transport in the region, says the Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers, the organization that produced the maritime strategy. The conference brings together the leaders from Ontario, Quebec, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Maritime transport is an “underutilized asset,” says Mike Piskur, program manager for the group. “Probably over the last 10-plus years, in state or provincial freight plans, maritime, if it was mentioned at all, it was in passing.”

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The 32-page maritime strategy lays out an array of recommendations to increase shipping in the Great Lakes, while supporting the traditional industrial economy.

“Given the importance of the seaway to the regional economy, anything we can do to find solutions to increasing the use and the value of the maritime system is beneficial to everybody,” says Mark Fisher, chief executive of the Council of the Great Lakes Region, a group composed of public, private and non-profit organizations with a shared interest in the region. The council was not involved in the development of the plan.

One headline recommendation is the construction of a second lock in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., equal in size to its existing Poe lock, the only one that can handle large freighters. Goods moving from Lake Superior to any other part of the Great Lakes system must go through this lock.

A 2015 U.S. Department of Homeland Security report found that if the Poe lock were to break down for just six months, the disruption to the steel industry would cost 11 million U.S. jobs, “potentially millions more in Canada and Mexico” and plunge the United States into a “severe” economic recession. 

A second lock would create a backup in the system. It is the first on a list of critical infrastructure projects needed to support shipping in the Great Lakes, Piskur says.

The report also recommends increased dredging in the Great Lakes, with priority placed on dredging a “critical chokepoint” – the St. Marys River between Michigan and Ont. – to its authorized depth of just over eight metres. 

North American freight is projected to increase 29 per cent in the next 11 years, the maritime strategy says. Shipping in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway supports 227,000 jobs and creates more than US$33 billion in business revenue, according to the Chamber of Marine Commerce.

“A potential disappointment with this report is that it didn’t go far enough,” says Fisher, who had hoped that the strategy would have integrated all forms of transport.

Proponents argue maritime shipping is a greener form of transportation: a Great Lakes carrier can travel nearly seven times farther on the same amount of fuel per tonne of cargo than a transport truck, says a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report. It adds that one 300-metre Great Lakes vessel has the carrying capacity of almost 3,000 semi-truckloads.

Ship owners, ports and harbours have made “major investments” in the efficiency and environmental performance in the Great Lakes, the maritime strategy says.

The maritime strategy highlights liquefied natural gas as a possible alternative to traditional fuels, but notes that the maritime industry in the Great Lakes alone may not provide sufficient demand for attract liquefied gas investment in the area.

The strategy recommends coming up with a system for the two national governments to monitor, verify and report ships’ environmental performance. It also proposes fees for vessels based on their environmental certifications, and stresses the importance of preventing invasive species in the lakes.

“Everyone recognizes that [the Great Lakes] need to be protected and maintained for the long-term benefit of everybody,” says Piskur. “These two goals go hand in hand.”

Yet finding a balance between business priorities and the environment may sometimes prove to be tough. Fisher says that dredging could raise some broader concerns in the area: “When you talk to people from the upper Great Lakes, they’ll tell you that dredging in this part of the system, over time, has led to or exacerbated low water levels in times of lower precipitation rates across the region.”

Implementation of the plan over the next 10 years is estimated to cost US$3.8 billion. Many projects listed in the strategy need more study, Piskur says.

Funding will come from a variety of sources – federal and provincial governments, industry, non-governmental organizations, and private-public partnerships, he adds.

“We’re trying to think about these things more creatively, recognizing that public money is limited.”

Sarah Reid is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. 

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