The ceremonial midway point of the Great Lakes shipping season arrived in August, delivering another month of impressive tonnage totals.

Shipments of taconite iron ore, totaling 5.6 million tons in August, were 55.9% higher than the same month a year ago — when the COVID-19 pandemic was weighing heavily on the industry.

The port of Duluth-Superior handled 3.8 million tons of the iron ore total for August, to go along with Two Harbors (1.3 million tons), and Silver Bay (801,687), locally.

“August serves as the unofficial halfway mark of the Great Lakes shipping season, and with total tonnage through Duluth-Superior closing the month almost 5% ahead of the five-season average, it certainly qualifies as a good first half,” said Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

Gary Meader /
Gary Meader /

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While some cargoes have struggled to get from place to place leading to inflated prices in some goods, that hasn’t been the case with iron ore.

Since opening in March, the iron ore trade on the Great Lakes stands at 32 million tons, an increase of 31.8% compared to the same point in 2020, and 4.5% above five-season averages.

The figure is on par with better years from 2017-2019, when steel tariffs took hold and fueled domestic ore and steel production. Those years, from 2017-19, the Great Lakes moved 33.8 million, 33.0 million and 32.7 million tons, respectively, through August. This season harkens to those.

Deb DeLuca
Deb DeLuca

“Amidst ongoing disruption in the global supply chain, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System has been, by comparison, an oasis of consistency so far in 2021,” DeLuca said last week in a Great Lakes Seaway Partnership news release.

The port of Duluth-Superior’s total tonnage through August, all cargoes, was 19.1 million short tons, slightly ahead of the five-season average and 40% ahead of last year’s sluggish pace.

It’s been a season of recovery, and that’s also true of the St. Lawrence Seaway System, with its 15 locks leading from the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence River and, from there, the world.

Including both Canadian and U.S. cargoes, the St. Lawrence Seaway System has seen 20.7 million tons of cargo shipped through August — a 5.2% increase from a season ago.

Gary Meader /
Gary Meader /

Construction commodities including iron ore, steel and cement continue to be exported at a newfound pace.

“Multiple vessels loaded with an array of steel products from over a dozen different countries arrived at U.S. Great Lakes ports in August, while iron ore exports to high demand countries, including China, Japan and South Korea, saw a 29% tonnage increase compared to this time last year,” said Craig H. Middlebrook in a Great Lakes Seaway Partnership news release.

Middlebrook is deputy administrator of Great Lakes Seaway Development Corp., based in Washington, D.C.

“This validates what we’ve long known — that the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System is crucial to the U.S. economy,” Middlebrook said. “It offers a cost-effective, safe and fuel-efficient means of moving goods to and from domestic and global markets.”

Video: How to ship-watch in the Twin Ports