Grain exports propel Port of Thunder Bay to highest volume in two decades

The lake freighter MV Saginaw said farewell to the Port of Thunder Bay en route to Windsor, Ont. with a load of grain last week, marking the end of the port’s most successful shipping season in over twenty years, driven by a surge in grain exports from the Prairies to eastern markets.

A combination of large carryover stocks from the 2019 harvest, worldwide stockpiling during the pandemic, and increasing canola and soybean demand from Europe were all part of the equation that saw the port tally 10.2 million tonnes in annual cargo volume — exceeding the ten million mark for the first time since 1997.

The Thunder Bay Port Authority reports just over 9.2 million tonnes of grain moved through Thunder Bay in 2020 — up from around 7.9 million in 2019.

More than 150 ocean-going “saltie” vessels destined for foreign ports were loaded with grain in 2020, the second-highest total since the 3,700-kilometre route to the Atlantic through the St. Lawrence Seaway System opened in 1959.

“The grain story bucks the downward trend of virtually every other cargo on the Seaway in 2020, signalling the important role the Port and Western farmers play on the System,” says a news release from the port authority.

MV Frontenac and the MV Algoma Strongfield (formerly the CWB Strongfield) (photo supplied)

The port also received its first import shipment of phosphate fertilizer from Morocco in December — a development which has port officials excited about growth and diversification in 2021 (although new tariffs on Moroccan fertilizer could potentially put a damper on this).

“This cargo represents an opportunity to increase inbound shipments in Thunder Bay, capitalizing on the large volume of outbound shipments and available capacity, improving the bottom line for shippers,” notes CEO Tim Heney. “We have invested heavily in infrastructure and marketed a two-way route that adds value for businesses shipping to and from the West. This cargo fits the model and affirms our strategy.”

The 20,800 tonnes of phosphate is being stored inside and shipped to prairie farmers by rail. “This shipment required considerable planning between the freight forwarder, the Port, and Logistec Stevedoring who was responsible for the safe and efficient discharge and handling of the fertilizer at the terminal,” notes Heney.

The MV Algoma Guardian (photo supplied)

With the shipping season coming to an end, winter maintenance and repairs will begin on four vessels overwintering at the port: MV Algoma Guardian, MV Algoma Strongfield (previously the CWB Strongfield), and MV Frontenac have laid up at Keefer Terminal; MV Blair McKeil is berthed at Heddle Shipyards.

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