Industry blames ice buildup for sluggish start to shipping season

Twin Ports ore shipments ended April down more than one-third compared to a year ago.

Twin Ports shipping.
The oceangoing Federal Ruhr takes on a load of cement at Ash Grove on Sunday as the laker Paul R. Tregurtha turns to back upstream to Superior Midwest Energy Terminal.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Last month’s first full month of seasonal shipping totals in the Twin Ports dipped considerably compared to the same month a season ago.

Iron ore through the Great Lakes was down 44.7%, totaling 3 million tons — a figure that was 41% worse than the five-year average.

The Port of Duluth-Superior made up 2.43 million short tons of ore in April, after seeing only three ore boats to start the season in the last week of March. That total was 38% below the start of last season, and 27% off five-year averages. Similar dips in output were recorded at ports in Silver Bay and Two Harbors.

Limestone shipments totaled 2 million tons, a decrease of 16.6% season over season, but above the five-year average by 5.5%.

april iron ore tonnage.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Industry leaders blamed a difficult ice-out in March and April, specifically with ice buildup and delays in Whitefish Bay on the eastern end of Lake Superior. The industry used the dip in output to once again advocate for another heavy U.S. icebreaker to join the Mackinaw on the Great Lakes.


“Inadequate ice-breaking resources in Lake Superior had a major impact on cargo shipments out of the Port of Duluth-Superior, which underlines how much we need new and improved capacity for the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaking fleet,” said Bruce Burrows, president and CEO of the Chamber of Marine Commerce based in Ottawa.

The Port of Duluth-Superior was tended to by a series of smaller Coast Guard cutters as the season started in late March. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Spar arrived to its new homeport in Duluth early last month.

On a more positive note, Burrows cited grain exports from U.S. ports being in strong demand along with shipments of salt, steel and containers.

“We expect that the demand for different cargo segments will continue to be impacted by fluctuating prices and trade flows related to global supply chain issues and the Russia-Ukraine conflict,” Burrows said.

april limestone tonnage.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

In April, the Twin Ports shipped 95,042 tons of grain, compared to 20,728 tons during the same month last season.

Outbound grain shipments comprised of wheat and beet pulp pellets totaled 148,620 short tons through April, nearly doubling the 2021 pace and exceeding the five-season average by 24%. Almost two-thirds of the Duluth-Superior grain float sailed through the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System as export commerce.

“Winter lingered a bit too long this year, which made March and most of April a tough slog for Coast Guard icebreakers and the freighters that depend on them for support to power through those conditions,” said Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. “We started to see an uptick in vessel traffic later in the month, as the ice situation improved, but it’s still hard to predict the tenor of 2022.”

Unusual factors continue to affect the world of cargo transportation, including ongoing global supply chain delays and the war in Ukraine, she added.


“That instability keeps everyone guessing, but there’s still reason for optimism that it’ll be a good season in the Port of Duluth-Superior,” DeLuca said.

Inbound salt deliveries to Duluth-Superior topped 81,000 short tons in April, more than doubling the April 2021 total and the five-season average.

The 1,200-foot lock will take seven years to complete, giving the Soo Locks a second lock to accommodate the Great Lakes' largest vessels.

Brady Slater covers St. Louis County and transportation for the Duluth News Tribune. He's a veteran journalist, and a University of Pittsburgh graduate who was born and raised in the Northland. He can be reached by emailing or by calling or texting 218-721-2724.
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