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Great Lakes shipping stays afloat amid COVID-19

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

The COVID-19 pandemic has hurt many sectors of the economy, but Great Lakes shipping appears to be mostly staying afloat.

The federal government’s St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. released a report Thursday showing total tonnage of goods down 8.4% in the first half of this year, but U.S. and Canadian grain up 3.3% from a year ago.

Iron ore, steel and iron shipments are down from last year but started to rebound last month with month-over-month increases. 

The freighter Algoterra moves up the Detroit River against a vibrant sunrise near Wyandotte in this June 27, 2019, file photo.

"Through June, we saw shipments stabilizing, with traditional Seaway cargos including grain and steel on an uptick," said Craig H. Middlebrook, deputy administrator of the U.S. St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., in a release. "General cargo tonnage continues to be strong, attributable in large part to increasing movement of wind turbine components.”

Overall tonnage was at 11.7 million metric tons, down 8.4% compared to this time last year, according to the report. U.S. and Canadian grain was at 3,554,000 metric tons this year, a 3.3% increase.

Dry bulk cargo was down 9.9% compared to last year and includes coke, stone, cement and clinkers, ores and concentrates and pig iron. Iron ore was down 14% compared to this time last year.

The top-performing commodities were grain, salt, gypsum, steel slab and asphalt.

Sri Talluri, professor of supply chain management at Michigan State University, said the report is good news. He said he attributes the freight activity in part to Europe and Asia flattening the curve with respect to COVID-19.

"So certainly recovery is unfolding in those parts of the world," he said. "Also, given that the trajectory of the disease is quite different in different parts of the U.S., it might be helping as well."

The Port of Monroe is among eight American ports across five Great Lakes states to handle shiploads of wind-related components. The domestic side of the port had a slow start to the season in April with the temporary shutdown of heavy industry, but picked up in May, said Paul C. LaMarre III, the director of the Port of Monroe, the state’s only seaport on Lake Erie.

The port’s international shipments are largely project-driven. The port is working with Spliethoff Group’s BigLift Shipping and Ventower Industry to move, handle and manufacture wind towers for a General Electric project in Isabella County.

The Port of Monroe is handling the tower section, machine heads and the hubs, LaMarre said, adding that the wind project “has had us exceptionally busy.”

"We're having the most fruitful season in the port's history," he said. "That isn't necessarily the story that is spanning the entire system, but one thing is for sure is that the Great Lake's St. Lawrence Seaway System is resilient."

Work continues on at the port with workers socially distancing, wearing masks, taking temperatures and looking out for one another, LaMarre said.

“That has kept us in a position where we really haven’t missed a beat,” he said. “It’s allowed us to be efficient, safe and to this point, very successful despite some very challenging circumstances.”

cwilliams@detroitnews.com

Twitter @CWilliams_DN