Leo Ryan, AJOTWhile pursuing infrastructure improvements and business incentives to halt a steady decline in traffic, the St. Lawrence Seaway launched its 2009 navigation season on March 31. It has a historic dimension: the 50th anniversary of its official opening in June 1959 in the presence of President Dwight Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain. That’s the good news. Otherwise, the global recession has thrown a dark cloud on shipping activity, thanks notably to the depressed steel and automobile industries in North America, Europe and elsewhere. “We are in uncharted territory,” said Richard Corfe, president of the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation.  “Realistically, we can see being down five percent or more.” Last year, total traffic fell to 40.7 million metric tons from 43 million tons in 2007. This is a far cry from the peak volumes above 70 million tons in the late 1970s. “Reduced overall industrial demand is affecting many Seaway commodities,” noted Wayne Smith, president of Algoma Central Corporation, which operates the largest domestic, Canadian fleet on the waterway. “Steel inventories are low everywhere, so the trend could only improve when economies rebound,” he added. The shutdown of one of the two steel plants in Hamilton alone could result in the loss of two million tons of iron ore cargo though the Seaway this year, observers consider. With the entrance at Montreal, the Seaway allows ocean-going vessels trading on the Atlantic Ocean to penetrate deep into the industrial heartland of North America. US inland carriers, with few exceptions, trade only within the five Great Lakes themselves with their 1,000-ft vessels unable to transit the Seaway locks. In its heyday, the Seaway handled substantial volumes of grain, with Russia and Europe as large customers. This has not been the case for several decades as European markets evaporated and Canadian grain exports shifted to China. At the same time, ships on the oceans got bigger and bigger (unable to pass through Seaway locks), and competition grew from railways, coastal ports and the Mississippi system.