MONTREAL — The St. Lawrence Seaway is recovering from the worst cargo season in years with an unexpected resurgence in exports of iron ore and grain in the first half of the shipping year.
Cargo shipments increased 18 per cent between March 20 and July 31 from a year ago to 16 million tonnes, according to the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp.
Momentum that started last fall has continued through the first half of the year, said Seaway CEO Terence Bowles.
"The main drivers have been U.S. iron ore and Canadian grain exports along with domestic demand for steel, salt, and construction materials," he said in a release.
Iron ore shipments grew 68 per cent to 3.7 million tonnes to meet higher demand from Japan and China for the key ingredient in steelmaking. An export program started last year and higher prices spurred activity a year after weak conditions curtailed exports, said Julia Fields of the Chamber of Marine Commerce.
U.S. iron ore pellets loaded at Minnesota ports by Canadian carriers are shipped through the seaway to the Port of Quebec, where they are transferred to larger ocean-going vessels.
"The economies of Canada and the United States have generally improved since the spring of 2016, and that’s also reflected in the increase in some of the other cargo categories," she wrote in an email.
Seaway salt shipments from Ontario and Quebec mines rose 42 per cent to 1.4 million tonnes.
Canadian grain shipments were up nine per cent to 3.1 million tonnes as last fall's harvest in the Prairies and Ontario was sent to overseas markets.
The Port of Thunder Bay, the main Great Lakes gateway for Prairie grain, shipped 350,000 tonnes more grain than usual as of July 31.
Total traffic at the Port of Windsor was up nearly 20 per cent, with much of the traffic being shipped on foreign vessels.
"We had anticipated a slight recovery after the downturn in 2016, but these numbers have exceeded our projections," said Windsor Port CEO David Cree.
The size of this fall's grain harvest will be a factor in determining total shipments through the seaway during the rest of the season.
Total cargo passing through the seaway fell to a seven-year low last year, with tonnage slipping 3.4 per cent to 35 million tonnes. An increase in grains and liquid bulk volumes failed to offset a 13 per cent drop in iron ore and nearly 10 per cent decreases in coal and dry bulk goods.
Slowing growth in China had previously curtailed international cargo demand, which hasn't been able to keep up with a surge in the number of vessels after a shipbuilding boom between 2002 and 2008.