As indicators go, this week’s 12-hour head start to the 2021-22 Great Lakes shipping campaign is viewed as a positive sign for an industry coming off historic losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It happened because industry partners requested to open early in order to accelerate the resupply of iron ore to steel mills on the lower lakes,” Duluth Seaway Port Authority Executive Director Deb DeLuca said last week. “It bodes well for our port.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the opening of the Soo Locks, on the eastern end of Lake Superior, for 11 a.m. Wednesday — a half-day ahead of the industry’s usual start under the cover of midnight.

The announcement was met with vigor. The vessel traffic website Harbor Lookout shows a dozen ore boats arriving at loading docks in the Twin Ports, Two Harbors and Silver Bay beginning Thursday afternoon.

All of the arrivals are set to leave with loads of taconite iron ore.

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Mines on the Iron Range are open and active. Blast furnaces at steel mills on the lower lakes are being used at rates nearing 80% and rising.

“2021 does seem poised for a rebound in tonnage,” DeLuca said. “There’s an increasingly healthy demand for steel. So, that’s all positive.”

Iron ore is the primary cargo in the Twin Ports, accounting for roughly two-thirds of all cargoes. Last season, 15.4 million tons of iron ore moved through the port of Duluth-Superior — the worst total since illegal foreign steel created a glut in the domestic market in 2015 (13.9 million tons) and 2016 (14.8 million tons).

The ore slump left total tonnage through the port of Duluth-Superior at 25.8 million short tons last season — the lowest single-season total since 1938, when 23 million tons of cargo left the port.

“Shipments of some construction materials, petroleum, and iron ore took a heavy hit from the pandemic,” said Bruce Burrows, president and CEO for the Canada-based Chamber of Marine Commerce, noting improvements by season’s end. “Key cargo segments like iron ore and construction materials will continue to improve, but the extent will be dependent on the pace of economic recovery in both countries, and how governments handle vaccination distribution and economic stimulus measures.”

While the pandemic saw to it that cargo movements suffered last year, workers aboard the boats appeared to stay healthy. The U.S. Coast Guard reported no positive COVID-19 cases on ships transiting Duluth-Superior last season. To keep that record intact, the industry needs to have its workers vaccinated, Burrows said.

“These workers are just as much frontline workers as those in trucking, rail, airline and other essential services that have ensured our supply chains continue to operate,” Burrows said. “Vaccinations will be important to ensure the mobility of our workers and to improve opportunities for crews to have shore leave, which is incredibly important for their health and well-being.”

Grain movements buoyed the Great Lakes system last season with a banner year, driven by a 27% surge in exports.

“Ports with strong grain volumes were able to make up for declines in other cargo volumes,” Burrows said.

That wasn’t the case in Duluth-Superior, where grains came in slightly under 2019’s figure — 1.4 million tons last year compared to 1.5 million tons the year prior.

“It’s a commodity prone to fluctuation,” DeLuca said. “We’re expecting business as usual.”

One cargo for which a rebound isn't a given: coal.

A dozer operator works on top the coal stockpiled at Midwest Energy Resources Co. in Superior on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
A dozer operator works on top the coal stockpiled at Midwest Energy Resources Co. in Superior on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Coal tonnage through the Twin Ports peaked at 22.1 million short tons in 2008. The intervening years have not been kind to the Superior coal dock, Midwest Energy Resources Co., where coal totals fell to 5.4 million short tons in 2020.

The retiring of coal-fueled power plants is one reason, said Detroit-based spokesperson Renee McClelland.

“We anticipate having a better season than last year as the winter was not as mild as the previous year, and the pandemic really impacted us during the first half of last year,” McClelland said.

She noted the loss of coal exports — once a staple, but now a forgotten cargo for outgoing foreign ships.

“The export market has dried up for MERC at this time as the cost of coal we were competing against has come down dramatically in the past six to seven years,” McClelland said.

The dock has been able to deliver new coal types to new customers, “but not enough to cover the volume losses we have experienced due to customers retiring their power plants that utilize coal,” McClelland said.

For now, coal continues to have a loyal customer in the steel-makers.

The 1,014-foot-long Paul R. Tregurtha sits docked near the coal piles at Midwest Energy Resources Co. in Superior on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
The 1,014-foot-long Paul R. Tregurtha sits docked near the coal piles at Midwest Energy Resources Co. in Superior on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

“Coal is still an important input for steel-making, so that domestic market continues,” Burrows said.

Finally, after back-to-back record-breaking years for windmill components, DeLuca doesn’t expect wind energy parts to reach those levels this year.

In fact, project cargoes figure to be down, DeLuca said, explaining that general cargoes come in chucks at a time.

“It depends on having projects in the region we can serve,” she said. “We’ll have a decent year, but nothing like last year.”

Asked if there were other indicators that could spell a recovery from last year’s pandemic-addled shipping campaign, DeLuca pointed to the Port Authority’s annual First Ship Contest.

Conducted with Visit Duluth, the winner of the contest is the person who correctly guesses the arrival of the first foreign vessel to Duluth-Superior.

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System opened for transit on the East Coast earlier this week. Contest entries have closed, and the winner of the contest receives a weekend stay in Duluth.

“We’ve already surpassed entries from last year,” DeLuca said. “We’ve got about 4,000 guesses. Obviously, lots of people are excited about the shipping season.”

The 1,014-foot-long Paul R. Tregurtha sits docked near the coal piles at Midwest Energy Resources Co. in Superior on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
The 1,014-foot-long Paul R. Tregurtha sits docked near the coal piles at Midwest Energy Resources Co. in Superior on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)