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St. Lawrence Seaway traffic spiked in May to clear large grain backlog

MONTREAL - Clearing Canada's bumper grain crop caused St. Lawrence Seaway traffic to spike in May as more than twice the normal number of ocean-going vessels passed through the waterway.

The Port of Thunder Bay had its busiest month in 16 years as more than 1.5 million tonnes of cargo, mostly grain, were moved.

The number of vessels passing through the northwestern Ontario port increased by 35 per cent from last May and included 26 ocean-going vessels — the most for any month since 2000 — and 44 domestic ships.

The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. said Tuesday that Canadian domestic ships were also busy transporting grain to Quebec ports to be loaded onto ships destined for Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa.

Bruce Hodgson, director of market development, said the seaway is playing a "critical role" in relieving the grain backlog that was built up over the winter.

"We're seeing a huge spike in ocean vessels coming into the system and the Canadian Great Lakes fleet is going gangbusters to respond to orders from the grain companies," he said in a news release.

The heightened activity came as the seaway's shipping season got off to its latest start in five years, toward the end of March, as harsh winter weather created some of the worst ice conditions in decades.

Canadian grain shipments from March 25 to May 31 were 1.4 million tonnes, up 2.4 per cent from the prior year.

Shipments of stone, salt and general cargo were also strong during May, but total system-wide shipments from Canada and the U.S. year-to-date were down 20 per cent to 6.6 million tonnes, largely due to iron ore.

Ore shipments were down nearly 37 per cent from last year to 1.4 million tonnes. Liquid bulk was down 35.7 per cent while coal was off 31.5 per cent and dry bulk 14 per cent lower. Grain was down 5.5 per cent to 1.69 million tonnes so far this year due to a 38 per cent drop in U.S. volumes, while general cargo was up nearly 41 per cent.

Algoma Central Corp. said it expects its Great Lakes fleet to be working "flat out" for the rest of the year.

Two laid-up ships are being put into service and the new Algoma Harvester — the second of eight new large bulk carriers built in China that will be added in the next two years — will arrive in mid-July.

The seaway expects at least 38 million tonnes of goods will move along the waterway this year, up from the 37 million tonnes transported in 2013.

A bumper grain crop of 76 million tonnes — 50 per cent more than average — 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.

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