Great Lakes icebreaking yields frosty debate

Taking a back seat to assets bound for the Arctic Ocean leaves Canadian and U.S. trade agencies sparring over which country can break through for Great Lakes shipping.

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Led by the big icebreaker Mackinaw, the smaller U.S. Coast Guard icebreaking tugs Morro Bay (center) and Katmai Bay arrive in succession in Duluth in March 2014. The vessels arrived in Duluth to lead several freighters through thick ice to the Soo Locks. (2014 file / News Tribune)
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Attention on Great Lakes infrastructure has come furiously of late — regional congressmen riding ore boats to highlight the importance of the Soo Locks, industry reports emphasizing how valuable lakes’ trade is to the economy, and a summerlong emphasis on how vital attaining new icebreaking assets has become.

But not all is rosy, as two major trade organizations, one Canadian, one American, have taken umbrage with how each is approaching the difficult procurement of new icebreaking assets.

In July, the News Tribune reported on $10 million wending through Congress that would “scope” a new Great Lakes icebreaker, by studying for needs and design. For the Chamber of Marine Commerce based in Ottawa, it was hardly news at all.

“When you get excited in the U.S. system is when it gets financed and a budget item is approved and passed through Congress,” Chamber President Bruce Burrows told the News Tribune.

Burrows spoke after the Chamber announced in August that Canada was already funding and taking requests for bid on a half dozen new icebreakers. The timeline put the first new arrivals within eight years of completion — ahead of the U.S. curve.


Additionally, the Canadians were going about recommissioning up to four more used Swedish icebreakers. Burrows said his agency has a campaign asking for five of the new icebreakers — two in the Upper Great Lakes, two for lakes Superior and Michigan, and one to be stationed in the St. Lawrence River leading to the Atlantic Ocean. It seemed like an over-ask in an effort to receive at least some assets.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Burrows, forecasting “a reasonable amount of upgrading and modernization” on the Great Lakes.

But the Lake Carriers' Association, based in Ohio and representing nearly 50 U.S.-flagged vessels on the Great Lakes, scoffed at the Canadian claims.

“I have absolutely zero faith that any of those Canadian icebreakers will be home ported on the Great Lakes,” Lake Carriers' President James Weakley said. “This is all about the Arctic.”

I have absolutely zero faith that any of those Canadian icebreakers will be home ported on the Great Lakes.

Weakley was referring to the Arctic Ocean, where diminishing ice caps have created an international race for dominance of the globe’s northernmost trade routes. The Navy Times announced in April $1.9 billion in spending for a new fleet of United States Coast Guard and Naval icebreakers to be built in Mississippi and unequivocally bound for the Arctic.

Weakley was critical of the current arrangement on the Great Lakes, where the U.S. has one heavy icebreaker (the Mackinaw ), and eight other buoy tenders and tugs equipped for ice-breaking. The Canadians offer two — the Samuel Risley and the Griffon — and have seen five ice-capable assets leave and not be replaced in the past few decades.

“That’s our frustration right now,” Weakley said. “The U.S. Coast Guard will tell you they’re one big happy family and that they operate the Great Lakes as a system (with Canada), but it’s really to the Canadian industry and government benefit.”


The Canadians boast a greater assemblage of lakers than the U.S., some 80 vessels that are generally smaller than the U.S.’s biggest ore boats.

“To supply icebreaking resources for all those Canadian lakers with two vessels is impossible,” Weakley said. “(Yet) they've gone from seven icebreakers to two and had no reduction of service."

The U.S. takes up the slack, Weakley explained, crossing international boundaries to escort vessels and break out Canadian harbors far more frequently than the other way around.

“The Canadian Coast Guard spent a week in Thunder Bay before the first Canadian laker arrived there (this year),” Weakley said. “Meanwhile, we’ve got ships stuck all over the Straits of Mackinac, Whitefish Bay, we can’t get in and out of Green Bay, we’re having trouble getting in and out of Sturgeon Bay and the Canadians are not doing anything to help in the St. Marys River (home to the Soo Locks).”

The disparity between nations comes at a time when historic ice coverage in recent years has reversed a 15-year trend of diminishing ice on the Great Lakes. Epic ice coverage in 2013-15 and again in 2019 has set back the industry and left shipping operations struggling to start the season. A single day’s delay is estimated to cost $500,000 per vessel. The Duluth-based Great Lakes Fleet didn’t come out of layup until April 5, waiting for more than 10 days past the opening of the Soo Locks for lanes to clear and risks of ice damage to lessen.

When informed of Weakley’s frustration, Burrows struck a conciliatory tone — one that suggested the Canadians were willing to help even if the new assets lead to hand-me-downs on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes.

“We just don’t know for certain where those six icebreakers will be home-ported,” Burrows said. “It’s likely they will be home-ported in the East Coast. But there will be cascading of older existing ships, and there is a good opportunity to have one of those home-ported in the Great Lakes.”

He continued by saying there is a light icebreaker, likely to be home-ported outside the St. Lawrence Seaway, that will be available for future use.


“We expect we will have good access to that regardless if it’s being home-ported in the St. Lawrence River,” Burrows said.

Such an asset would be helpful, Weakley said, if needed at the Welland Canal linking lakes Erie and Ontario.

Still, Lake Carriers is arguing hard for another 240-foot Mackinaw class heavy icebreaker on the Great Lakes.

“We just need more assets,” Weakley said.

Crew members keep watch as the 240-foot heavy icebreaker USCGC Mackinaw prepares to dock behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center in March 2019. (file / News Tribune)

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