As countries around the world went into lockdown due to COVID-19 earlier this year, the marine network known as Highway H20 — a massive, 3,700-kilometre stretch of connected waterways including the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway — did not miss a beat.
Highway H20 is the world’s longest deep-draft inland waterway, stretching from the head of Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean. Within the broader 3,700 km waterway, the St. Lawrence Seaway’s 15 locks serve as the essential lynchpin, connecting the upper Great Lakes to the lower St. Lawrence River in Montreal. They enable the waterway to function as a trade gateway connecting the heartland of North America to the Atlantic Ocean and markets overseas.
While the pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for many industries, including marine transportation, Highway H20 has remained open for business. The Seaway ensures essential cargoes like grain continue to move efficiently from North America’s heartland to more than 50 global markets, including Europe, North Africa and South America.
The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC) has been able to operate the Seaway’s locks reliably during the pandemic, thanks in large part to an emergency plan it developed after the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the H1N1 crisis in 2009. This proactive measure allowed the Seaway to pivot quickly when COVID-19 began to spread.
Technology implemented by the SLSMC over the past 20 years also helped in the Seaway’s response to the pandemic. The use of hands-free mooring in the locks, “basically vacuum pads that attach to the ship and secure it, as the ship is raised or lowered in the lock,” said Terence Bowles, president and CEO of the SLSMC, “ensures no close contact is required between ship crews and Seaway staff.”
“The Seaway is keeping essential cargoes moving smoothly, continuing to serve as a vital supply chain supporting our economy,” said Bowles.
Highway H20 has more than 25 port partners in Canada and the U.S. who move over 200 million tonnes of essential materials and finished products each year, including grain, sugar and salt, as well as iron ore, steel and petroleum products.
“It helps us reach out and feed the world,” said Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority in Minnesota. “The wheat that passes through our port is very high in protein content, and it’s great for bread and pasta making. It’s highly sought-after in Italy and North Africa for those purposes.”
Duluth moved roughly 1.5 million tonnes of grain last year, including wheat grown in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and eastern Montana. About 80 per cent is shipped overseas.
“It’s an absolutely critical part of the local economy,” said DeLuca. “Shipping has been one of the economic drivers of our community since the 1800s.”
Demand for marine shipping has always been high. It’s the most efficient and environmentally sustainable option for moving cargo, in comparison to air, road and rail. A single Seaway-sized laker ship can carry about as much freight as 1,000 large trucks or 300 rail cars.
And it has become even more crucial during the pandemic.
There has been a dramatic surge in Canadian grain exports as other countries try to preserve their own food supplies, said Tim Heney, CEO of the Thunder Bay Port Authority in Ontario.
“It’s opened up a greater demand in Europe for Canadian grain,” he said. “The decline in the Canadian dollar as a result of the pandemic, and crashes in world markets, has also given Canada an advantage. We’ve seen strong demand and a lot more ocean vessels have come to the port to take advantage of that trade.”
Thunder Bay is western Canada’s entry point to Highway H20, exporting grain from Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta to international markets.
“It’s a huge grain port,” he said. “And we’re probably running about 50 per cent of capacity, so it has a lot more room to grow.”
With about 8,000 Seaway-sized vessels in the worldwide fleet, there is also ample capacity to respond to increased demand; another advantage Highway H20 cites in comparison to road and rail transport.
“A lot of our carriers were ready to go as soon as we could open for the season,” said Bruce Hodgson, director of market development for the SLSMC. “Unlike other modes, we have a huge capacity of ships that can meet a defined need … that reserve is ready to act.”
As the global economy begins to open up, Highway H20 is positioning itself for a possible post-pandemic bubble that may require even more marine shipping.
If it happens, the Seaway is ready to meet the need.
“At present, we’re pretty close to normal cargo volumes,” said Bowles. “We function so smoothly that most people just don’t realize how much cargo we continuously move safely and efficiently. During a busy week, we can move the equivalent of almost 100,000 truckloads of cargo.
“We’re very dependable, and we respond very quickly to any of these emergencies. What’s more, we have the capacity within our existing locks to double our cargo volume, so we are an outstanding transportation system with the potential to do even more.”
Source: National Post