The St. Lawrence Seaway's 56th shipping season is getting off to its latest start in five years as harsh winter weather has created some of the worst ice conditions in decades.
Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers have been working feverishly to clear a path from the Upper Great Lakes through the end of the key shipping route.
The seaway officially opens Friday at the Welland Canal in St. Catharines, Ont., with the Montreal end of the system launching its season on Monday.
That's six and nine days later than last year, and the latest opening since 2009.
After a 10-year warming phase, this past winter produced the thickest ice in decades, said Terence Bowles, CEO of St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp.
"We've had one of our most severe winters in a long time and we've had a very significant ice cover throughout the system, particularly up in the Great Lakes but also in our canal system," he said in an interview ahead of the official opening.
Bowles said that the late start to the season puts stress on shippers and customers who count on it for transporting goods.
Among those most anxious are grain farmers who are eager to begin shipping last year's bumper crop from a terminal in Thunder Bay, Ont., to markets in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa.
The head of Canada's largest Great Lakes shipping line said the ice will cause delays and have a financial impact on shippers.
"This is what some people would say is a once-in-a-lifetime event, but certainly the type of ice has not been like this for many decades," said Greg Wight, CEO of Algoma Central Corp.
The company's new Equinox vessel is the first ship to pass through the Welland Canal. The 222-metre-long, Chinese-built vessel is the first of eight cargo carriers the company will be adding to its fleet or manage over the next couple of years as part of a $400-million investment. They are faster and consume 45 per cent less fuel.
The seaway relies heavily on Canadian and U.S. coast guard icebreakers each season. They were called upon to close the season after a winter freeze arrived Dec. 15. Two vessels worked to clear a path between Welland and the first locks in St. Lambert, Que.
Wight said the key to opening shipping lanes is where the icebreakers are deployed. While the whole system, including Lake Erie and Lake Huron, is full of heavy ice, need is greatest in Thunder Bay at the head of Lake Superior and Lake Superior in Wisconsin, he said.
Stephen Brooks, president of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, which represents ship owners, ports and customers, said the coast guards and the industry are working closely to resolve the biggest challenge in 20 or 30 years.
"Under the circumstances, given the challenges, the efforts have been admirable," he said.
Still, the late start to the shipping shouldn't prevent the seaway from having a stronger year in 2014, officials said.
Bowles said he expects at least 38 million tonnes of goods will move along the seaway, up about 2.7 per cent from the 37 million tonnes transported in 2013.
"If I look at the economies of the U.S. and Europe, they're certainly improving, the U.S. particularly so we're quite optimistic that business is going to be better than it was last year."
A bumper grain crop of 76 million tonnes â€” 50 per cent more than average â€” should allow seaway shipments to increase this year after slipping 3.2 per cent in 2013 because the crop, although a record, was quite late.
"Obviously, rail has got to get that wheat to Thunder Bay and then we'll haul it," said Bowles, who is sympathetic to the winter challenges endured by railways Canadian National (TSX:CNR) and Canadian Pacific (TSX:CP).
"This recent week they've hauled a lot more grain so I'm encouraged by all that."
The federal government tabled legislation this week aimed at increasing the movement of grain that has been left sitting in bins across the Prairies because of a railway transportation bottleneck. Earlier this month, it ordered rail companies to double the amount of grain they move each week, up to a minimum of one million tonnes in 11,000 cars each week.
Meanwhile, the seaway is counting on an improved U.S. economy to support higher shipments of iron ore, steel, automotive products and construction materials such as cement and aggregates.
Algoma Central said it also expects to benefit from factors not tied to the economy, such as the record grain output and the need to replenish salt supplies used during the winter.
"We're looking to the season with optimism. The early part of the season will be difficult but we think, looking at the big picture, there's a lot of good things happening that should allow us to be fully employed," said Wight.
While the shipping industry is investing heavily in new vessels, the seaway plans to spend $500 million on upgrades over five years, including $83 million this year in Canada and US$14 million in the United States.
Money will be spent on lock gates, rebuilding seaway walls and automated gate and bridge operations. It is also extending a "hands-free" mooring system in place in Beauharnois, Que., to three more locks â€” St. Lambert, Welland and another unit in Beauharnois.
Seven additional locks in Canada and two in the U.S. will eventually get the system that replaces wires and ropes with suction cups to keep the vessels in place in locks.
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