The MSC Gina docked at the Port of Montreal
The MSC Gina docked at the Port of Montreal

Canada’s imports and exports fell slightly last year to respectively C$547 billion and C$521 billion, when much uncertainty prevailed in shipping and global economic trends, but leading Canadian ports on the East Coast managed to either maintain or recover a growth pattern.

In part, this could be attributed to improving world commodity prices (impacting especially on such bulk-dominant ports as Sept-Iles and Quebec). Otherwise, sustained demand from Asia and signs of more life from lackluster Europe stimulated port activity.

And a surprise element has come from the Canadian economy which has tended to lag behind the United States in GDP performance.

Latest figures from Statistics Canada show the Canadian economy progressing at an annualized rate of 2.3 percent in January. This continues the rapid pace recorded in Q4 2016 when GDP expanded by 2.6 percent. “Given the rip-roaring start to the quarter and the nice hand-off from late last year, even tiny gains in the next two months will yield quarterly growth of well over three percent,” commented BMO economist Doug Porter.

Port of Montreal Leading the Upswing

The Port of Montreal, Canada’s second biggest port after Vancouver, continued its upward momentum in 2016, with an increase of 10 percent sparking a new record for total cargo at 35.2 million metric tons. Substantial increases in grain shipments and liquid bulk boosted overall throughput.

The Port of Montreal also came very close in 2016 to matching its container summit of nearly 1.5 million TEU set in 2015.

“Our traffic is pretty balanced between imports and exports,” Tony Boemi, VP Growth and Development, told the American Journal of Transportation.

While Europe is the traditional core market, with three of every five containers imported, Asia, led by China, is a fast-growing trading partner, Boemi indicated.

Thanks to its deep inland location on the St. Lawrence River in relation to the industrial heartland of North America and its extensive intermodal connections, Mr. Boemi said Montreal was well-positioned for ocean carriers serving markets in Eastern Canada and the US Midwest.

According to Boemi, Montreal’s market share of the North Atlantic container trade is estimated at 29 percent versus about 30 percent for NY/NJ and 26 percent for Norfolk.

Among the highlights of last year was the inauguration of the new Viau terminal which is increasing the port’s capacity by 600,000 TEU to 2.1 million TEU.

Halifax on the Move

The Port of Halifax, Nova Scotia (photo by Steve Farmer)
The Port of Halifax, Nova Scotia (photo by Steve Farmer)

At the Port of Halifax, a number of positive factors have come together over the past 18 months, including completion of deepening of channels to accommodate large containerships and the introduction of new services by members of The Alliance and Ocean Alliance consortiums. Most recently, this past January, Tropical Shipping shifted its port operations from Saint John to Halifax. Final figures for 2016 show total Halifax traffic spiking by 16.2 percent to 8.3 million metric tons. Container cargo increased by 15 percent to 481,000 TEU. Port officials are optimistic the growth trend will continue this year as box ships in the 9,000-TEU category now call regularly.

Saint John in ‘transition phase’

In New Brunswick, at Canada’s third largest port by volume, total traffic at Port Saint John on the Bay of Fundy increased by 2,419 metric tons in 2016 when compared to the previous year, with overall cargo handled at 26.4 million tons. Its most recent peak was over 31 million tons in 2011. The local Irving refinery complex alone accounts for more than 25 million tons.

Losses experienced in the dry bulk sector were buoyed by increases in liquid bulk while break bulk forest projects showed a small gain of 1,200 metric tons. In the container sector, 572,181 tons (90,262 TEUS) of cargo were handled in 2016, a slight decrease over the previous year.

“We are in a transitional phase in the next steps of modernizing this Port,” explains Jim Quinn, President & CEO of Port Saint John. “As we start 2017, we are particularly excited that our new partner DP World Saint John is now in operation. This partnership blends their global reach and influence together with our terminal modernization plan to achieve the common objective of continued growth and a bright future for the Port and its supporting port service community.”

The port’s C$205 million modernization project passed a major milestone in January when two recently-delivered post-Panamax cranes began operations at the DP World terminal. The infrastructure project notably enhancing capacity to handle larger vessels has a 2021 completion target.

At the Port of Sept-Iles on the North Shore of the St. Lawrence River, Pierre Gagnon, President and CEO, sees an improved outlook on the horizon thanks to a recent strengthening of global iron prices and several acquisitions that, among other things, give the port greater control over the strategic Pointe Noire area.

Of considerable significance, too, is the exploitation of a multi-user dock now slated for formal inauguration this coming summer. Built at a cost of more than C$220 million, it will more than double the port’s iron ore capacity to 50 million tons. Conceived to handle Chinamax bulk carriers, the port is counting on handling iron ore for overseas shipment to Tata Steel later this year.

“We see prospects in 2017 as generally more favorable,” Gagnon said.

In 2016, there were already signs of a turnaround in the wake of a downward trend lasting several years, as total traffic rose by 1 percent to 23 million metric tons.

At the Port of Quebec, last year also marked a return to cargo growth, with cautious optimism prevailing for 2017. Following three years of decline, traffic increased by 15 percent in 2016 to 23 million metric tons, reflecting in part a higher demand for commodities.