Could the Great Lakes Solve America’s Navigation Problems?


With Coastal Ports Blocked, Inland Ports Along the Great Lakes Step Up Efforts to Help Supply Chain

Lake Erie — one of five connected freshwater bodies that make up the Great Lakes system along the Canada-US border — might not seem like a solution to America’s supply chain problems.

But it could be exactly that, writes Stephen Starr for the BBC.

Connected to the Atlantic Ocean by a system of canals and locks, the Port of Cleveland is one of many Great Lakes shipping centers experiencing a revival. Last year, the total tonnage handled by the port increased by 69% compared to 2020. April’s tonnage was double that of the same month in 2021.

“We get a lot more calls from people – shippers, cargo owners – who generally wouldn’t want to consider using a smaller inland port to move their cargo,” said David Gutheil, the port’s commercial director.

As major ports along the east and west coasts of the United States grapple with freight backlogs due to the ripple effects of supply chain issues caused by everything from Covid lockdowns in China to the Russia’s war in Ukraine, shippers are turning to long-ignored ports as a way to get supplies to and from America.

Global shipping companies were among the first to spot the potential of the Great Lakes.

Map of the Port of Cleveland on Lake Erie

Map of the Port of Cleveland on Lake Erie

In August, a Dutch shipping company added an additional vessel to its Antwerp-Cleveland route to meet growing demand.

One ship even sailed from Shanghai to Cleveland last November — a forty-day trip that bypassed major ports in Southern California, Virginia and New Jersey — to avoid the backlogs plaguing those places.

It’s not just inbound international freight companies that look to Great Lakes ports to handle their cargo. The Port of Cleveland works with a Texas-based company that trucks goods from the Gulf of New Mexico to Lake Erie – a 1,000-mile journey – to ship its products to Europe.

“They can’t get vessel or container capacity there (in Texas),” Gutheil said.

While ports on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans dominate the US shipping industry today, that wasn’t always the case. During the 1800s and 1900s, Great Lakes ports once served as a crucial North American shipping highway for the transportation of agricultural products and other bulk commodities such as iron ore, coal, and limestone.

The deregulation of the rail and especially the trucking industries in 1980, combined with the relocation of manufacturing to Asia and elsewhere, however, led to the decline of the Great Lakes ports.

Located more than 2,200 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the Port of Duluth-Superior was at its peak in the 1950s, when it handled more than 77 million short tons of cargo such as iron ore and grain. agriculture, making it the largest freshwater port in the world. By 2017, the amount of cargo he handled had more than halved.

But today, as major US coastal ports struggle to keep up with demand, the Great Lakes have the potential to boost the capacity of the nation’s shipping industry. The Port of Cleveland, for example, currently only moves around 10,000 containers per year, but could potentially handle around 100,000 containers.

Six hundred and thirty miles northwest of Cleveland, the Port of Duluth-Superior – the largest on the Great Lakes – has expanded its facilities to include a customs station that now allows it to handle international cargo.

Its first overseas container shipment – 200 containers of bagged red beans destined for Italy, France, Germany and Hungary – set sail in late May.

And yet, all is not easy for the ports of the North. Reports of a shortage of icebreaker vessels hampered shipping activities last winter as the lakes froze over.

Additionally, the canal’s 15 locks that allow ships to travel between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean are not maintained and kept ice-free by their US and Canadian operators during the winter months.

This means that even if southern sections of the Great Lakes such as Lake Erie and Lake Ontario do not freeze over in winter, access between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic would not be possible.

Frozen Lake Michigan

The Great Lakes often freeze over in winter and disrupt ship transportation

“One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the issue of seasonality; the Great Lakes aren’t open 12 months (of the year),” said Daniel Rust, associate professor of transportation and logistics management at the ‘University of Wisconsin-Superio.

“Supply chain managers always want to ship a certain way and have a reliable supply chain for 12 months of the year.”

Another challenge is that the locks can only accommodate ships no wider than 23.8 meters (78 feet), which means that many ships cannot pass. The Ever Given ship that blocked the Suez Canal for a week last year, for example, is 193 feet (59 meters) wide.

Industry experts say these issues could be overcome.

Establishing a feeder or shuttle service for small vessels would fill that gap, observers say, and it’s an initiative that several Canadian ports have recently adopted. In June 2021, Canadian shipping company, Desgagnés, launched a collection service that ships nearly 300 containers between Hamilton, Ontario, and the Port of Montreal.

With labor disputes potentially causing backlogs at West Coast ports and railroad congestion creating bottlenecks this summer, Americans could face more supply shortages in the months ahead.

All the while, Midwesterners say they’re ready to help.

As Mr. Gutheil put it: “If you have 10 or 20 ports…that handle as much as we do, then you start talking about significant change in the supply chain world.”