Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System’s 2021 Navigation Season Starts Strong

Iron ore surges over 2020 tonnage; Seaway-wide tonnage up nearly four percent, tracking 5-year average

The Great Lakes Seaway Partnership today reported that American and Canadian ports in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System handled over four million tons of cargo from the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway on March 22, 2021 through April 30, 2021, a 3.7 percent increase compared to shipments through April last year.


Photographer: Ashley McRann


Craig H. Middlebrook, Deputy Administrator of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation said, “We are pleased to see a solid start to the 2021 Great Lakes Seaway System navigation season, with overall tonnage tracking with the 5-year average. Inbound shipments of steel and project cargo and iron ore exports are keeping our ports busy early in the season.”

Through April, iron ore shipments through the St. Lawrence Seaway reached 703,000 metric tons, nearly a seven percent increase compared to shipments of iron ore during the same time in 2020. To learn more about iron ore movement and the steel supply chain in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region, watch the first installment of The Great Lakes Seaway Partnership’s American Anchor series.


2021 Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway Key Performance Indicators**
2020 2021 Change (+/-)
Total Transits* 400 416 + 4.0%
Total Cargo* 3,861,000 mt 4,004,000 mt + 3.7%
*Combined U.S. and Canadian traffic
**All data is compared year-over-year (2020: Shipments from April 1 to April 30, 2020) (2021: Shipments from March 22 to April 30, 2021)


Photographer: Steven White


2021 Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway Key Commodity Trackers***

2020 2021 Change (+/-)**
Grain* 1,058,000 mt 1,163,000 mt + 10%
Iron Ore* 658,000 mt 703,000 mt + 6.9%
Coal* 266,000 mt 241,000 mt – 9.6%
Salt* 330,000 mt 241,000 mt – 26.9%
Petroleum Products* 381,000 mt 271,000 mt – 28.8%
*Combined U.S. and Canadian traffic
**Percentages rounded to nearest tenth
***All data is compared year-over-year (2020: Shipments from April 1, to April 30, 2020) (2021: Shipments from March 22 to April 30, 2021)


American Great Lakes Ports Celebrate Start of 2021 Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway Navigation Season

Port of Duluth-Superior

The Port of Duluth-Superior floated nearly 4.2 million short tons of cargo through April 30, 2021, which represented a 48 percent increase over the 2020 pace and a 23 percent improvement on the five-season average.

Domestic dry bulk shipments 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 brisk, totaling more than a million short tons. Iron ore tonnage also surged, topping 2.7 million short tons. That total exceeded the 2020 pace by 21 percent and the five-season average by 19 percent. Domestic grain tonnage also surpassed the 2020 pace, notching an 18 percent gain.

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

“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.”

Port of Toledo

The Port of Toledo is off to a solid start for the 2021 shipping season. “We’ve already handled over 1 million tons of iron ore, which is a good indication that steel demand will be strong in 2021,” said Joseph Cappel, VP Business Development for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority. “We are excited about the 2021 shipping season for several reasons. The new Cleveland Cliffs hot briquetted iron facility will be in full production this year, which will drive substantial vessel activity at the Ironville terminal. Also, our new massive Liebherr 550 mobile harbor crane recently arrived and is being assembled, giving us additional capabilities for bulk and project cargo handling. We are also rebuilding the dock wall at Midwest Terminals and making improvements at the Toledo Shipyard. We’ve been looking forward to these milestones for some time and are excited that the projects are coming to fruition.”

Port of Monroe

 Paul C. LaMarre III, Port Director, Port of Monroe, said, “The Port of Monroe is off to as strong of a start as ever as cargo was flowing across our docks at the turn of the new year and has been moving ever since. In addition to handling the staple bulk cargoes that have sustained the Port in recent years, the Port’s Terminal Operator, DRM Terminal Services, has worked to book new steel and wind cargoes by vessel and rail. The Port continues to be proud of the resilience of our entire Port team and very much looks forward to contributing to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway as a whole in all that we do.”

Port of Green Bay

The shipping season is now fully underway, with early tonnage totals for the Port of Green Bay steadily ramping up. The season officially began on March 19, and the combined tonnage total for March and April was 132,423. That’s 40 percent lower than the same time last year, when the season got off to a very fast start.

“Every shipping season is different, and you really can’t predict what will happen during the rest of the season based on the first six weeks,” said Dean Haen, Port of Green Bay Director. “Shipments are booked far in advance; mines and manufacturers are producing the commodities, and shipping lines are scheduling the logistics. The combination of these factors contributes to tonnage moved through the Port of Green Bay. Demand for commodities is up, prices are up and availability of those commodities are challenged. The Port tonnage numbers will go up, and we will have a better picture of the shipping season in the months ahead.”

“Our target each year is to reach or top 2 million tons for the shipping season,” added Haen. “2019 was a record year for us, and 2020 was also strong, despite the pandemic. I am optimistic that shipping will pick up as the year goes on.”

The leading cargo categories for March and April were limestone (49,934 tons), cement, (33,483 tons) and salt (26,341 tons). A total of 11 vessels have moved through the Port so far this year, including nine lakers and two Canadian vessels.

Port of Erie

“The 2021 shipping season is off to a quick start, with the first vessel arriving through the Seaway mid-April. We are looking forward to several more shipments of wind energy blades prior to the seaway shutdown in December,” said Brenda A. Sandberg, Executive Director, Erie-Western Pennsylvania Port Authority. 

Port of Ogdensburg

“Despite the 2020 COVID pandemic, the Port of Ogdensburg saw a 4 percent increase in cargo over the 2019 shipping season. So far, we have received shipments of road salt earlier this season than expected. We also anticipate intermodal grain shipments to remain strong for 2021,” said Steve Lawrence, Executive Director, Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority.

Ports of Indiana

“The Ports of Indiana-Burns Harbor has had a solid first quarter with an increase of more than 10 percent tonnage year-over-year to date,” said Ports of Indiana CEO Vanta E. Coda II. “We believe this year’s project cargo and bulk commodities will be strong and see steel coming back to more normalized levels. With the economy getting stronger, 2021 looks to be a good bounce-back year for our customers.”

About the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System

The Great Lakes-Seaway System serves a dynamic economic region that includes eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. If the region were a country, it would have the 3rd largest economy in the world with a GDP of $5.5 trillion – larger than that of Japan, Germany, Brazil, or the United Kingdom. Home to 107 million people and accounting for almost 40 percent of the total cross-border trade between the U.S. and Canada, the region is truly “North America’s Opportunity Belt.”

Great Lakes-Seaway shipping is a foundation of this vibrant economy. More than 160 million metric tons of commercial cargo are transported on the waterway each year, providing low-cost and efficient transportation for the region’s manufacturing, mining, agriculture, and energy sectors.

Great Lakes-Seaway maritime commerce lifts the American and Canadian economies on an annual basis by supporting:

  • 237,868 jobs
  • $35 billion in economic activity
  • $14.2 billion in personal income and local consumption expenditures
  • $6.6 billion in federal, state/provincial, and local tax revenue