ESCANABA - While the winter season shows no signs of letting up, shipping on the Great Lakes has slowed down considerably.
The Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie were closed Wednesday and will not reopen until March 25, according to Randy Elliott, vessel traffic manager for the U.S. Coast Guard in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.
"That does not end the shipping season, but it certainly curtails much of the shipping," he said.
Two ore boats, surrounded by ice, prepare to overnight in Little Bay de Noc as the sun sets in Escanaba recently. The shipping season is winding down as ice forms on area waters sooner than expected. (Daily Press photo by Jenny Lancour)
As part of the locks' closure, one of the Coast Guard's missions is finding ships a pier to dock at, or to lay up, as the vast majority of ships are tied up for the winter, said Elliott.
"Everything quiets down because nature has told the shipping industry over many, many years, that it's a difficult time to run," he noted of the winter season.
Most ships that trade on the Great Lakes go to lay up at or near a shipyard for maintenance and repairs so they are ready to start back up again come spring.
Despite the locks' closure through the end of March, Elliott said waters such as the Green Bay waterway into Escanaba, the Straits of Mackinac, and St. Marys River remain open all winter long, but see limited traffic.
There is also some limited tanker traffic that continues on the Great Lakes over the next few months, with ships transporting fuel, diesel, and gasoline, but that is down to only a fraction of what shipping had been just one week ago, said Elliott.
As for the biggest struggle facing the Coast Guard with the shipping season slow-down?
"As we approach the close of the shipping season, this is the worst ice we've seen in 20 years," said Elliott.
He noted that many times the Coast Guard does not dispatch icebreakers until the beginning of January, but this year they started around Dec. 9 - close to a month earlier than usual.
Elliott suspects the 2013 shipping season is comparative to 2012, but noted iron ore was likely down overall.
Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers' Association (LCA), a trade organization that represents U.S.-flag vessel operators on the Great Lakes, said in general, iron ore trade on the Great Lakes was down a bit from 2012, which he attributes in part due to the early, harsh winter causing many delays in December. On the other hand, shipments out of Escanaba were up from previous years, he said.
According to a press release issued by the LCA, shipments of iron ore on the Great Lakes totaled 58.3 million tons in 2013, down 5.3 percent from 2012.
The totals account for the Great Lakes and seaway ports of Escanaba and Presque Isle, Mich.; Duluth, Two Harbors, and Silver Bay, Minn.; Superior, Wis., and Cleveland, Ohio; as well as the Canadian seaway ports of Pointe Noire, Port Cartier, and Sept Iles, Quebec.
Shipments from U.S. only Great Lakes ports totaled 51.8 million tons in 2013, down 3.5 percent from a year ago. Shipments from Canadian ports to Great Lakes destinations totaled 6.5 million tons in 2013 - down 18.2 percent from 2012.
The LCA said, in total, the trade had been significantly behind 2012's pace through November, but the gap grew significantly when an early and harsh start to winter limited total shipments to just 5.1 million tons in December - a decrease of 20 percent from last year.
In Escanaba, 3.7 million tons of iron ore was shipped in 2013 - more than the 2.7 million tons shipped in 2012, but down slightly from its 2008-2012 average of 3.8 million tons and its highest year in recent memory of 5.3 million tons in 2008.
For more information, visit the LCA website at www.lcaships.com.