Port of Duluth opens season amid uncertainty

The John G. Munson was built in 1952 at Manitowoc, Wisconsin. She was lengthened 120 feet in the spring of 1976 at the Fraser Shipyards in Superior, Wisconsin and is now 768 feet long. She has 22 hatches on her deck that open into 7 cargo holds. Her maximum carrying capacity is 25,900 tons. She has one of the best steam whistles on the Great Lakes. (PHOTO: Steve Moses, Flickr CC)

The John G. Munson was built in 1952 at Manitowoc, Wisconsin. She was lengthened 120 feet in the spring of 1976 at the Fraser Shipyards in Superior, Wisconsin and is now 768 feet long. She has 22 hatches on her deck that open into 7 cargo holds. Her maximum carrying capacity is 25,900 tons. The John G. Munson will be first out of the Port of Duluth and Superior this morning, signaling the start of the 2015 Great Lakes shipping season.(PHOTO: Steve Moses, Flickr CC)

First, the good news. Today, the Port of Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin, kicks off the 2015 Great Lakes Shipping season with the departure of the S.S. John G. Munson and its 24,000 tons of iron ore. The start of the Duluth shipping season represents the region’s de facto spring, a time when the industrialists definitively conclude that the sun will, indeed, approach the Northern Hemisphere sometime during Q2.

But this year’s shipping season commencement comes with a great deal of uncertainty. Sure, there’s plenty of iron ore (and other commodities like coal and grains) to move right now. The winter layup and stockpiles formed amid last fall’s rail delays leaves plenty of work for the big ships in the near future.

Nevertheless, iron ore prices fell again late last week — a new six-year low of $54.60. Keewatin Taconite announced a May shutdown due to the pricing pressures, and other Range mines will surely do the same if prices stay that low.

So today is a day to celebrate, but also a day to plan ahead for a rough-and-tumble 2015. As you see in the Port’s press release, some anticipate that imports will more than make up for the decline in oil and ore shipments. If that holds true, we could see a — wait for it — sea change in how economic traffic moves through the region.

Here’s the press release on the today’s start of the shipping season from the Duluth Seaway Port Authority:

Sure Sign of Spring …
2015 Shipping Season to get underway Monday in Port of Duluth-Superior

Duluth, Minn., USA (March 20, 2015)—The first two U.S.-flag lakers are on schedule to depart the Port of Duluth-Superior on Monday, March 23, signaling the start of the 2015 commercial shipping season at this end of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway system.

On Sunday morning, the John G. Munson, with an assist from Heritage Marine tugs, is set to move from its winter berth at Fraser Shipyards in Superior to first fuel at the Port Terminal then shift over to the CN Duluth Dock to load 24,000 short tons of iron ore pellets. On Monday morning, the Munson is slated to depart beneath the Aerial Bridge, destined for Gary, Indiana.

Late Monday afternoon/early evening, the Mesabi Miner is expected to depart from the Superior Midwest Energy Terminal with some 57,000 tons of coal onboard for the power plant at Taconite Harbor. After making that delivery, the 1,000-footer will return to the Twin Ports for a couple of days of scheduled maintenance work and to load its next coal cargo.
[NOTE: All vessel arrival/departure times are estimates and may change without notice.]

While Lake Superior looks bright blue in the early spring sunshine here in Duluth-Superior, there is still a significant amount of ice cover on the eastern edge of the Lake – two to three feet thick from Whitefish Point to the St. Marys River. As such, U.S. Coast Guard cutter Alder will be working in tandem with USCGC Mackinaw to lay tracks and provide escorts for vessels as needed through that eastern ice pack to and from the Soo Locks.

At this point in time, the Munson is expected to be the first downbound commercial vessel in position to transit the Soo Locks this season. It also appears there may be four upbound vessels waiting below the Soo Locks when they reopen at 12:01 a.m. on Wed., March 25 – including the Edwin H. Gott, Edgar B. Speer, Roger Blough and the Algoma Olympic.

The Soo Locks provide the gateway for lake carriers – some measuring more than 1,000 feet in length – to move raw materials like iron ore, coal, limestone, cement and salt between Lake Superior and Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie. It is also one of 16 sets of locks along the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway (GLSLS) that allows oceangoing ships (“salties”) to move breakbulk and project cargoes in and out of North America’s heartland and deliver Midwestern grains to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

“Against what seemed like insurmountable odds with everything Mother Nature threw at us from beginning to end, the Port of Duluth-Superior wrapped up the 2014 shipping season a full 2.3 percent ahead of expectations, having moved over 37.5 million short tons of cargo,” said Vanta Coda, Duluth Seaway Port Authority executive director. “There are still some formidable ice challenges along the Great Lakes-Seaway, but nowhere near what the fleets were facing at this same time last year.”

“We anticipate a banner year here at the Port Terminal for project cargo moving through Duluth in 2015,” noted Coda. “This Port sits at the nexus of multiple energy sectors, so we’ll be seeing several shipments of equipment heading in from Europe and elsewhere destined for wind energy installations and oil/gas fields further north and west. All told, the Port of Duluth-Superior should see a two percent increase in activity during 2015. Headwinds do exist in the decline of commodity pricing (e.g. iron ore and oil). And the strengthening U.S. dollar will challenge exports, however import prospects will improve.”

It’s a bit harder to predict the arrival of the Port’s first oceangoing vessel. The Seaway locks (the Montreal/Lake Ontario section and Welland Canal) won’t reopen for business this year until April 2, so it will be at least another week later before the Port of Duluth-Superior will see its first saltie. That first saltie to pass beneath the Aerial Lift Bridge will be greeted by maritime officials with a welcoming ceremony and will also qualify a winner for the annual “First Ship Contest” sponsored by the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and Visit Duluth. Last year, due to dramatic ice conditions, the Port’s first saltie, the Diana, didn’t arrive until May 7 (the latest on record).

Of the five vessels that wintered over in the Twin Ports for repair and maintenance, the remaining three – Kaye E. Barker, American Integrity and the Indiana Harbor – aren’t scheduled to depart until late March or early April.

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