A sharp drop in United States grain exports through the St. Lawrence Seaway in 2008 more than accounted for traffic that overall fell by 5.35 percent from previous-year levels.
“United States grain was our major disappointment -- without that, we would have had a fair year compared with 2007,” said Richard Corfe, president and chief executive of the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., the Canadian operator of the binational waterway, in an interview.
Grain exports fell to 7.57 million metric tons from 10.41 million tons in 2007. The U.S. accounted for most of the shortfall as shipments slipped from 4.3 million tons to 1.5 million tons. Canadian grain exports were flat at 6 million tons.
The waterway carried a total of 40.7 million tons of cargo in 4,267 ship transits, compared with 43.01 million tons in 4,450 transits in 2007.
Corfe said weaker grain traffic may have been due to corn being diverted from exports to ethanol production. "I don’t believe more grain was moved via the Mississippi River," he said. "U.S. grain often goes out on ocean vessels, but there were fewer of these because there was less steel coming in and because lower freight rates elsewhere attracted ships that might have come to the Seaway.”
General cargo fell to 1.96 million tons from 2.41 million tons in 2007, including steel, the latter on weaker demand in North America. Iron ore shipments were flat, and coal and “other bulk" cargo moved ahead by a half-million tons each.
“We’re in uncharted territory; it’s tough to know,” Corfe said about the outlook for 2009, particularly if the U.S. fails to recover from recession this year.
Hopes for the Seaway to finally achieve a breakthrough in short-sea shipping -- with cargoes transshipped through the system to Montreal and beyond from Atlantic North American ports -- have been hit at least temporarily by the drop in cargoes from and to China and India, Corfe said.
“We were going to be part of the alternative to West Coast port and intermodal congestion, but the slowdown in the China-India supply chain affects our hopes for that in the short term,” he said. “It will happen, but a year or two later.”