Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Shipping:  What Have You Done for Me Lately?

By Bruce Burrows, Chamber of Marine Commerce

They are a common sight along the shores of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River – brightly-colored behemoths silently gliding by. They have storied histories and networks of fans and have even become a tourist attraction for waterfront towns. But what do commercial freighters (salties and lakers as they are affectionately called) contribute to our region and everyday lives?

A new report, “The Economic Impacts of Maritime Shipping in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Region,” helps answer that question.

The Algoma Equinox carrying cargo on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence waterway. Credit:  Sara Fox
The Algoma Equinox carrying cargo on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence waterway. Credit:  Sara Fox

The analysis, conducted by economic consultants Martin Associates and overseen by a steering committee of public agencies and private companies, details the economic benefits of shipping activity along the entire binational Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River waterway – the longest deep draft inland navigation system in the world.

The numbers are significant:

  • In 2017, more than 230 million metric tons of raw materials and finished goods were transported by ships to and from ports via the waterway, which includes the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway and lower St. Lawrence River.
  • This international and domestic cargo was worth more than US$77 billion (CDN$100 billion).
  • Cargo handled at the ports supported US$46 billion (CDN$60 billion) of economic activity and 329,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs in the eight Great Lakes states and Ontario and Quebec. Direct jobs are those dependent on port activity; indirect jobs are those generated when firms involved with port activity purchase goods and services. Induced jobs are those created when individuals directly employed by port activity spend their wages in the community.
  • Marine-related industries and employees contributed significantly to the health, education and general prosperity of society through their US$18 billion (CDN$23 billion) contribution to federal and provincial/state and local taxes.

You can find specific information on Canadian provinces and US states online. An infographic also helps summarize the findings.

Delving Deeper

The maritime industry supports not only direct jobs on ships and the waterfront – such as vessel crew, longshoremen, terminal employees, pilots and truckers – but also direct jobs at steel mills, mines and other facilities that are dependent on the cargo being delivered by ships.

These jobs would likely disappear without the navigation system. The location of steel mills, alumina smelters and dependent iron ore, salt and alumina mines in proximity to ports and marine terminals underscores the importance of the transportation system in providing raw materials to the region’s industrial economy.

As Sean Donnelly, president and CEO of steel company ArcelorMittal Dofasco puts it: “More than 185 ships carry iron ore and coal to our Hamilton docks every year for steel production, as well as other materials such as steel slabs and coke.

“It provides a direct, cost-effective and sustainable way to transport these huge volumes of raw materials.  Our success is dependent on the success of our supply chain, including the St. Lawrence Seaway and the ship operators that move our material.”

The fact that ships carry these goods cost effectively, safely and sustainably enhances the global competitiveness of the region’s industries and directly impacts those who live here.

Previous studies have shown that ships are the most fuel-efficient way to transport goods and that one Seaway-sized ship can carry as much as 963 trucks in just one load. As a result, using marine transportation significantly reduces highway congestion and carbon emissions. A Research and Traffic Group study found that rail would emit 19 percent and trucks would emit 533 percent more greenhouse gas emissions per cargo ton/kilometer if these modes carried the same cargo the same distance as the Great Lakes-Seaway fleet.

Ships Bring Staples

This latest economic report shows the sheer volume and breadth of cargoes transported on the binational waterway. These cargoes become the staples of everyday life:  the food feeding our families; the salt that de-ices our roads; the stone, cement and other materials that become our buildings, factories, roads and bridges; the steel and aluminum that become our vehicles and planes; and the energy that powers our homes and offices.

Credit: The Economic Impacts of Maritime Shipping in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Region, Martin Associates, 2018.
Credit: The Economic Impacts of Maritime Shipping in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Region, Martin Associates, 2018.

Bruce Burrows is the president of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, based in Ottawa, Canada.

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