By Leo Ryan, AJOTFor a St. Lawrence Seaway celebrating the 50th anniversary of an engineering marvel and important commercial corridor in North America, these are grim times. As the global recession shows few signs of relaxing its grip on the US and Canadian economies, commercial shipping on the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence waterway has diminished significantly. And the two largest ports on the Great Lakes, Duluth-Superior (Wisconsin) and Hamilton (Ontario) have seen their cargo volume plummet by more than 50%. Fleet utilization by domestic Canadian operators has dropped by about 20% while nearly 40% of the US-flag fleet on the Great Lakes is idle. Biggest factor: the depressed state of the steel and automobile industries in the region. “Things are really not good,” said Paul Pathy, executive vice-president of Montreal-based Fednav Limited, largest ocean-going user of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which connects the Atlantic Ocean with the industrial heartland of North America. “There is so little cargo coming in that it’s very hard to position ships for cargo going out,” Pathy said. “Up ‘til a few years ago, we used to carry a lot of high-grade steel to Detroit, but this business has disappeared.” He recalled that, under the traditional pattern, backhaul grain out was justified by steel coming in. This is no longer the case. In an interview, Pathy expressed the hope that the massive economic stimulus plan by the Obama administration “will have a positive impact on inbound steel despite ‘Buy American’ provisions.” Like other shipping executives, Pathy is watching closely for signs of a sustained economic recovery that some analysts predict for the fall. Greg Wight, president of Algoma Central Corporation, the biggest Canadian-flag owner of bulk vessels on the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence waterway, stated that, “…lack of demand for aggregates, steel and iron ore impacts directly on our fleet utilization, which is presently down about 15%.” “Infrastructure programs need to come on stream more emphatically to stimulate a turnaround,” he said. Gerald Carter, president of Canada Steamship Lines, said, “…it’s the most challenging, unpredictable year in a long time. While some business is recession-proof, about 20% of our capacity is not being used. Much of the downturn is related to steel.” Freight traffic on the St. Lawrence Seaway’s channels and locks, which began on March 31 following the annual winter closing, fell dramatically in the first three months of the 2009 season. Total cargo to the end of June amounted to nine million metric tons versus 14 million tons a year-earlier – a 36% plunge. Worst hit was iron ore, which declined from 4.7 million tons to 1.96 million tons. Although at the end of June, grain volume was up 24% at 2.6 million tons, this trend was not expected to continue in light of severe drought this summer in Canada’s Prairie provinces in particular. Observers expect Seaway throughput for all of 2009 to decline at least 10% below last year’s 40.7 million tons. According to the Cleveland-based Lake Carriers Association (LCA), which represents 18 American companies operating US-flag ships in the intra-Great Lakes trades, only 47 vessels were working on June 1. A year ago, the active fleet totaled 75 vessels. For the year to end May, US-flag carriage stood at 13.7 million tons – representing a dramatic decrease of 50% from the same period in 2008. “The steel industry’s struggles were clearly evident in May,” the LCA noted. Loadings of iron ore in US hulls fell 62% to 2.2 million tons.” Meanwhile, one of the rare positive developments has been the launch in early July of a container feeder service, involving tug and barge transport, between Hamilton and Montreal. The weekly fixed service by McKeil Marine Limited providing transport for some 250 TEUs per sailing has been billed as a competitive and “green” alternative to truck and rail for containers connecting with liner services calling on Montreal.