By Leo Ryan, AJOTThe global recession has caught up with shipping lines, ports and terminal operators active on Canada’s east coast. While the Port of Halifax recently received some good news with the addition of two new container customers, the overall downward trend on the North Atlantic trade continues. And Montreal is no longer bucking this trend after posting the highest growth last year among container ports on North America’s eastern seaboard. On a more optimistic note, the contraction in the Canadian economy has been less pronounced than in most other countries, including the United States and the member states of the European Union. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), in addition to praising the Canadian banking system as a model of responsible financial management, has predicted that Canada’s GDP will shrink by just 1.2% this year following a 0.6% growth in 2008. This was a more bullish forecast than the Bank of Canada’s, which has suggested the GDP decline could attain three percent in 2009. In its assessment on the Canadian outlook, the IMF observed, “…further export declines and soft commodity prices are likely to weigh on employment and income, while uncertainties about near-term prospects.”  Within this context, the federal minority Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has unveiled a C$4.3 billion economic stimulus package spread over four years, with an estimated C$460 million earmarked for bridges, harbors and roads. It will have a relatively little short-term impact, analysts say. To a large extent, an overall turnaround at Canadian ports on the eastern seaboard hinges on the timing of economic recovery in Canada, the United States, Europe and even Asia. The Port of Halifax has been developing business with Asian carriers offering services to North America via the Suez Canal. For the Port of Montreal in particular, brisk demand in the United States is critical: nearly half of its container business is generated by shipments to and from the US Midwest and Northeast. Excellent intermodal connections play a significant role here. “We are now feeling what the rest of the world is feeling,” Kevin Doherty, president of Montreal Gateway Terminals Partnership, told AJOT. “Not only is container traffic down, but also breakbulk and bulk. There are fewer ships and less cargo.” A marine industry source indicated that business was down between 9% and 15%, depending on the Montreal terminal concerned. Earlier this year, in February, the Port of Montreal lost a longtime container customer, Senator Lines, which folded its operations due to depressed freight rates. Its majority owner, Hanjin Shipping, nevertheless decided to maintain Montreal sailings. After posting another container record in 2008, despite the accelerating economic decline worldwide, the Port of Montreal saw its container cargo plunge by 15.5% in the first two months of 2009 to 215,668 TEUs. Last year, Montreal’s box throughput had climbed by 7.2% to 1.5 million TEUs. Canada’s leading Atlantic container port has an interim chief executive, Sylvie Vachon, who was Vice-President, Administration and Human Resources, prior to the mid-March dismissal of Patrice Pelletier amidst reports of increasingly strained relationships with members of the port Board and port users. The port’s ambitious $2.5 billion Vision 2020 plan to triple container capacity to 4.5 million TEUs will remain intact, but port spokesman Jean-Paul Lejeune has acknowledged that there will likely be some fine-tuning to reflect current global economic and financial conditions. At the same time, too, Montreal, like other Canadian ports, has applied to the federal government for infrastructure funding made available under various existing and new programs. For its part, the outlook at the deepwater Port of Halifax, whose total and container cargo dipped sharply in 2008, is not all negative. Last year, it enjoyed a strong performance in the breakbulk, ro/ro and cruise sectors. Wh