The bi-national St. Lawrence Seaway, which links the Atlantic Ocean to the industrial heartland of North America, showed considerable resiliency in facing the pandemic challenges of 2020 and 2021. And in 2022, the waterway is continuing to demonstrate its effectiveness and appeal as a strategic marine transportation corridor amidst the world economic uncertainties ushered in by the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February.

Such is the central message expounded by Seaway officials and the just-released annual corporate report of Canada’s St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC) on its 25th year of commercialization. The continental waterway’s prime vocation is succinctly summed up in the report’s title: A green corridor leading to economic growth and opportunity.

“This season the Seaway has continued to play a key role month after month as a reliable export corridor for farmers and businesses during these uncertain times,” stressed Jean Aubry-Morin, SLSMC vice-president of external affairs.

Following the traditional winter closure for maintenance, the waterway entered the fourth month of its navigation season in July.

Pointing to a major highlight of the period to end-June, Aubry-Morin indicated that potash shipments nearly tripled to 376,000 metric tons.

“A vital ingredient in fertilizer, the potash was destined for Europe, South America and North Africa, helping to alleviate global shortages caused by the Russian/Ukraine war,” he told AJOT.

Terence Bowles, president & CEO, St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp.

Overall cargo tonnage shipments from March 22 to June 30 via the St. Lawrence Seaway totaled 11.9 million tons. While down 8.3% compared to 2021, the trend was significantly closing the gap in comparison to April, when tonnage was down 18% following the start to the season.

Approaching mid-season, Aubry-Morin noted there have been strong movements of U.S. grain, potash, coke and some liquid bulk products. Ontario grain has also shown strength, offsetting some of the decline in grain from western Canada due to last year’s smaller crop.

“These are all indicators that nourish our hope of finishing the 2022 season a little above last year,” he stated.

Seaway traffic reached 38.2 million tons in 2021, 0.4 million tonnes (1.1%) above 2020 results. In a year that tested supply chains around the world, the corporate report commented that “the Seaway remained a beacon of unwavering reliability. Seaway users could depend on the System to deliver their goods, allowing them to maintain operations in an environment of strong demand.

“Several Seaway staples bounced back after being negatively impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic, including general cargo shipments, which improved by an imposing 73% over 2020, as North-American manufacturers once again turned to the Seaway to ensure timely and reliable delivery of critical steel and slab imports.

“Also, the lifting of COVID-19 containment measures allowed liquid bulk cargoes to gain back a portion of the ground lost during the pandemic.

“The category closed the year with a 5% increase. Beyond being a dependable supply chain for their core business, Seaway users count on the System’s adaptability to take advantage of opportunities offered by international markets. In 2021, these included a myriad of export commodities such as iron ore, which increased 13% year-over-year, as well as coke and potash which contributed to the 8% increase of the Dry Bulk segment. These exceptional results more than offset the substantial 20% drop in export grain shipments, caused by a drought event that affected crops in key growing areas.”

 Algoma’s Captain Henry Jackman is 35% more fuel efficient than older vessels, an example of leveraging technology by Seaway carriers to bolster green shipping. Photo courtesy of SLSMC

Terence Bowles Sums Up Vision and Achievements

In his introduction to the report, Terence Bowles, president and CEO, noted the substantial investments through the years allocated to modernizing and optimizing the Seaway’s operations.

“These improvements,” he noted, “have strengthened its position as an essential transportation corridor for the efficient movement of products between North American and world markets.

“Through improvements and the use of technology, the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC) has reduced its Green House Gas Emissions well ahead of the targets set by the Federal Government for the year 2030, which is helping drive sustainability. Moving forward, we will continue to promote the use of vessels versus other less environmentally-efficient modes of transport, work with partners in the maritime industry to further reduce Green House Gas Emissions, contribute to the creation of a Green Corridor and help respond to global supply chain disruptions.”

In terms of revenue, Bowles explained that the Seaway ended 2021 at C$83.6 million, plus $7.7 million in revenue generated from lands administered by the Corporation. This allowed the Corporation to fully cover $52.3 million in manageable costs and contribute $39 million to asset renewal.

Each year, millions of dollars are spent on Asset Renewal Plans, including $75.7 million in 2021/22. This level of spending not only ensures the reliability of the infrastructure, but provides employment to many contractors who carry out this work, especially during the winter works period of January to March.

On the safety front, the Seaway’s “Making Safe Choices” campaign has been successful in influencing employee performance and safety focus. For the 2021/22 fiscal year, the Corporation attained the milestone of over one million hours worked without lost time injury on a Seaway site.

Weather conditions were such that the 2021 navigation season closed without any concerns about ice. As part of a five-year pilot program, for the third consecutive year, the Welland Canal’s season was extended to early January. With climatic changes and improvements being made, the Seaway is now working towards a later closing date for the Montreal-Lake Ontario section.

Over the years, along with producing hydro-electric power, the Seaway has taken steps to reduce its carbon footprint, including adding electric vehicles and equipment. As mentioned earlier, the Seaway is well ahead of the 2030 targets set by the Federal Government for greenhouse gas emissions.

Looking to the present horizon, Bowles acknowledges: “There are still many unknowns in relation to the pandemic, consumer habits and the Russia / Ukraine conflict. Nevertheless, we continue to explore opportunities to increase existing commodities, and work with shippers, carriers and other partners to attract “New Business”, as the current Seaway locks and channels can easily accommodate a 50% increase in tonnage.