It was a good year for shipping - with the Port of Duluth-Superior seeing significant gains in tonnage in all but one cargo category. While one shipping product saw pretty significant numbers, the one that missed the mark did so with "historically low" numbers.

First the good news:  when viewed across the board, cargo tonnage rebounded nicely from "pandemic-induced lows in 2020".  According to an article in the Superior Telegram [paywall], "total maritime tonnage through the Port of Duluth-Superior climbed to 32-9 million short tons in 2021-22 - a 27% increase over the previous campaign and a 2.3% improvement over the five-season average".

While a smaller number, the 2.3% increase over five years is perhaps a more telling barometer of the industry as opposed to the 27% increase over last years numbers.  Most everyone expected that shipping tonnage would be down in 2020 as response to the COVID-19 pandemic shut down operations in almost every category; to that extent, Duluth-Superior was no different from anywhere else in the world.  However, even with the net-loss of a "slide year" calculated into the equation, the five-year running average saw positive movement - and that's a good sign.

It's also telling that the numbers increased significantly - even if day-to-day operations are still hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Deb DeLuca, the Executive Director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority explains:

"We hoped for a return to normalcy in 2021 and a tonnage rebound from the pandemic-plagued 2020 season.  We're still waiting on the return to normalcy, but the tonnage bounce back was pronounced, driven especially by strong demand for domestic steel."

That article in the Telegram spells out the success stories for iron ore, limestone, and coal. Specifically, the iron ore cargo category led the healthy increases over last year.  In fact, iron ore "topped 20 million short tons for the second time in four seasons, a feat unmatched since the early 1990's".  That upswing lends itself to optimism.

Nick Cooper - TSM Duluth
Nick Cooper - TSM Duluth
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While numbers were up for general cargo categories, grain tonnage was down.  In fact, it was down historically:

"Grain, the ports number one export, suffered a steep drop to 808,498 short tons for the season.  This marked an 85-year low for Duluth-Superior grain tonnage and was the second lowest seasonal grain total for the port since 1890."

Shipping for the 2021-2022 season is currently in midwinter offseason for the Port of Duluth-Superior and across the Great Lakes.  The season will resume when the Soo Locks open on March 25.

Steve Tanko
Steve Tanko
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