Taconite iron ore shipments on the Great Lakes are trending up, and the Twin Ports, in particular, is experiencing a bustling start to the shipping campaign.

The port of Duluth-Superior floated nearly 4.2 million short tons of cargo through April, representing a 48% increase over the 2020 pace and a 23% improvement on the five-season average.

Domestic dry bulk shipments, such as ore, coal, and limestone, drove the early season positivity, with outbound domestic tonnage doubling the 2020 pace. In a stark contrast to last year, coal and coke shipments started briskly, totaling more than a million short tons. Iron ore tonnage also surged, topping 2.7 million short tons between Duluth and Superior.

That total exceeded the 2020 pace by 21% and the five-season average by 19%. Domestic grain tonnage also surpassed the 2020 pace, notching an 18% gain.

It was also a strong start for inbound cargoes like cement and limestone, with tonnages significantly exceeding the five-season average.

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“It’s been a very good start to what we expect will be a bounce-back season for the port of Duluth-Superior after the COVID-induced lows of 2020,” said Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. “Along with total tonnage, our vessel count is also up dramatically, and we’re certainly hoping that trend continues throughout the season. It’s encouraging to see the high level of activity in our harbor and throughout the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System.”

Earlier this week, the Lake Carriers' Association announced taconite iron ore totals throughout the Great Lakes which exceeded last year's slowdown. The iron ore industry totaled 5.56 million tons of ore shipped in April, an increase of 8.2% compared to the same month last year of 5.14 million tons.

Shipments were 8.6% ahead of the month’s five-year average of 5.12 million tons, the Lake Carriers' Association announced.

Year-to-date, the iron ore trade stands at 9.45 million tons across the Great Lakes, an increase of 15% compared to the same point in 2020, when the total was 8.22 million tons.

Iron ore shipments are 10.1% above their five-year average of 8.59 million tons through April, which includes partial months of January and March around the Great Lakes shipping offseason.

Blast-furnace utilization rates continued to hover around 74% in March, compared to 64% in April 2020 during the early days of the pandemic in the United States.

The port of Duluth accounted for 1.02 million tons of iron ore shipped in April, trailing Superior (1.24 million tons) and Two Harbors (1.55 million tons). Silver Bay brought slightly more than 623,000 tons for the month.

Iron ore is the primary cargo in the Twin Ports, accounting for roughly two-thirds of all cargoes.

Last season, only 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 pace can fluctuate based on a variety of factors, including market trends, so it’s too early to predict how the season-ending totals will compare to other years," DeLuca said. "But with that said, it’s been a very good start, which is encouraging, and the indications are positive for dry bulk cargoes like iron ore, limestone and cement, especially.”

This story was updated at 12:15 May 13 to include update information from the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. It was originally posted at 10:51 a.m. May 13.