The COVID-19 pandemic is blamed for an "atypical" and potentially historic slowdown in the port of Duluth-Superior, where total tonnage was down 31% in August compared to the pace in 2019.

"We're weathering the storm," Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said Thursday, adding that she couldn't think of anything in recent memory that would compare to the unprecedented effects of the coronavirus on the shipping economy.

"We're not going to make up the time that we've lost," DeLuca said.

Shuttered industrial facilities and reduced demand for steel have resulted in a total tonnage disparity of about 6 million tons, from 19.9 million tons at this midseason stage in 2019 to 13.8 in 2020. The disparity is observable in the number of vessels, too, with 110 fewer arrivals through Aug. 31 than in 2019, from 434 to 324.

"We’re extremely grateful for all of the hardworking men and women who keep essential cargoes moving through what has been an unprecedented shipping season thus far,” DeLuca said.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Despite the reopening of many facilities and an incremental return to more typical consumption, the Port Authority said the United States’ "steel capability utilization rate" remained at 65.1% during the week ending Sept. 12, compared to 80.3% during the same period in 2019.

"The Port of Duluth-Superior’s diminished 2020 tonnage reflects this steel production disparity, as Minnesota provides approximately 80% of the iron ore used in America’s first-pour steel," a Port Authority news release said.

One positive note: Outbound grain and inbound wind energy cargoes emerged as first-half highlights.

North American wheat shipments pushed grain tonnage 14.5% ahead of the 2019 pace through Aug. 31, and 7% above the five-season average with 568,554 tons through Aug. 31 verses 380,654 in 2019.

"Grain is global supply chain and last year’s crop moved really well with a good price point and good protein quality," DeLuca said. "From here on out, we're starting to move this year's crop."

The first shipment of beet pulp pellets of the year left the port this week, DeLuca added.

Wind turbine components, including blades and towers, also provided a boost to the port. Nine ships loaded with wind components visited the Clure Public Marine Terminal through Aug. 31, contributing to what could be a record campaign for the renewable energy cargoes. Those parts are going to wind energy fields in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, DeLuca said.

“If this pandemic-plagued shipping season was a prospector’s pan, there’d be a lot of black sand and only a few golden nuggets,” DeLuca said. “But even a few golden nuggets are cause for excitement, and we’re certainly pleased to see strong grain numbers and potentially record-setting success with wind cargoes.”

As the season moves into its second half, the pace of wind cargo shipments figures to continue, with overseas vessels arriving in Duluth from Brazil, India, Spain and Turkey.

Duluth Cargo Connect manages wind cargo arrivals, offloading with an assortment of heavy-lift machinery and collaborating with regional trucking companies to dispatch the components. Last year, Duluth Cargo Connect achieved a wind energy cargo single-season freight tonnage record, at 306,000 tons, a figure the Port Authority said would likely be eclipsed in 2020 with North America’s furthest-inland seaport marking its 15th season as a wind cargo transport hub.

“A season like this emphasizes the importance of cargo diversity in a port,” DeLuca said.

Duluth was joined by most every port along the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System in enduring a down-trending campaign.

Cargo volumes throughout the binational Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway totaled about 19.3 million tons between April and August, down 8% from a year ago, the Chamber of Marine Commerce in Ottawa, Ontario, reported this week in measuring foreign vessels visiting the Great Lakes off the Atlantic Coast.

Canadian grain continues to have an excellent year, the Chamber said, up 20% year-over-year through August. Other key cargo segments continue to be impacted negatively by the pandemic, including year-to-date iron ore (down 23%), dry bulk (down 11%) and liquid bulk (down 23%).

"Canadian grain has helped Seaway totals immensely, as well as project cargo which is up over 160% from this time last year, as many U.S. ports receive wind turbine components and other machinery,” Bruce Burrows, Chamber president and CEO, said. “While some key commodities remain down, we are expecting good harvests across the U.S. Midwest and Canada. The Seaway is poised for a big push of grain exports right up to the end of the year."

At least nine U.S. Great Lakes ports have received wind turbine components, destined for energy projects across the region and Midwest.