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Port of Thunder Bay casts off on 2020 shipping season

Northwestern Ontario port moves more than 10 million tonnes of Prairie grain, highest since 1997

The Port of Thunder Bay closes its shipping season today.

The last vessel, MV Saginaw, was scheduled to depart Thunder Bay during the afternoon with a grain cargo bound for Windsor.

The vast volume of grain shipments that moved through the northwestern Ontario port in 2020 reached a high-water mark of sorts, not seen in more than two decades.

Annual cargo volumes tallied 10.2 million tonnes, exceeding the 10-million tonne mark for the first time since 1997.

The Thunder Bay Port Authority said the "grain story bucks the downward trend" of every other cargo on the Seaway in 2020.

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A news release attributed several factors to the grain surge, including significant carryover of grain stock from the large 2019 harvest and worldwide stockpiling of staple foods during the pandemic.

Thunder Bay is located at the western end of the the 3,700-kilometre long Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Seaway System. But it's Western Canada's marine gateway in moving grain to Europe and Africa.

Greater diversification of crops, particularly in Manitoba, is having an impact in Thunder Bay as well, as markets demand more variety. Canola and soybean orders in Europe have grown at a higher rate than those for traditional durum wheat.

The overseas grain demand drew over 150 foreign – ‘saltie’ – vessels to Thunder Bay for grain in 2020, the second-highest tally at the port since the Seaway opened in 1959.

Looking ahead to 2021, port officials are optimistic about attracting a new cargo that will grow their freight diversification mix.

In early December, dock workers handled their first import shipment of phosphate fertilizer at Keefer Terminal.

The fertilizer is being stored inside and railed to Prairie grain farms for the next harvest.

“This shipment required considerable planning between the freight forwarder, the Port, and Logistec Stevedoring who was responsible for the safe and efficient discharge and handling of the fertilizer at the terminal," said port authority CEO Tim Heney in a statement.

More of these shipments are expected next spring.

“This cargo represents an opportunity to increase inbound shipments in Thunder Bay, capitalizing on the large volume of outbound shipments and available capacity, improving the bottom line for shippers," said Heney.

"We have invested heavily in infrastructure and marketed a two-way route that adds value for businesses shipping to and from the West. This cargo fits the model and affirms our strategy.”

The port authority mentioned that four vessels are wintering in Thunder Bay to undergo maintenance and repairs, including the MV Algoma Guardian, MV Algoma Strongfield, and MV Frontenac which are laid up at Keefer Terminal. The MV Blair McKeil is berthed at Heddle Shipyard.