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Shipping traffic through the Soo Locks is down by nearly 50%

Creative Commons

Overall shipping traffic through the Soo Locks is down by nearly 50% compared to this time last year.

This comes as the U.S. Coast Guard is closing ice breaking operations for the season. Ice breaking operations ceased on Saturday April, 16.

Since March 25, between 125-135 ships have passed through the Soo Locks. This time last year that number was around 250.

During the first weeks of the season, over a dozen ships were delayed due to ice and gale force winds. Some were delayed up to 60 hours.

But ice may not be the only factor for the decline in ship traffic.

Mark Gill is the director of vessel traffic services for the U.S. Coast Guard in Sault St. Marie.

"I can look at some of the things that we’re trading on the Great Lakes, iron ore, limestone, certain grains, the demand is down. Yeah, you could blame it on the ice, but you know you could also blame it on the market," said Gill, who also mentioned he is not an economist.

Last year's ice cover was lower than last year's, according to Gill, and that someone could draw the parallel between more ice cover this year and the drop in shipping traffic.

Courtest of Coast Guard News Creative Commons.jpg
Petty Officer 2nd Class Levi Rea/U.S. Coast Guard
Creative Commons / Coast Guard News
The Mackinaw is the U.S. Coast Guard's largest ice breaker on the Great Lakes

"You could also look at fuel prices are up. You could look at the war in Ukraine, does that have an impact on our commodities market," said Gill.

The Lake Carriers’ Association told WCMU that ice has been a major cause of the slowdown in traffic and some ships may not be willing to sail this early in the season due to ice concerns. Some steel companies are also amid contract negotiations.

"It shouldn’t surprise anyone if a 28 hour trip across Lake Superior takes 4 days because boats were beset in Whitefish for 3 days," said Jim Weakley, President of the Lake Carriers' Association, in an email to WCMU. "There will be fewer lockages and less cargo carried for the months of March and April."

The U.S. Coast Guard and the Lake Carriers' Association do agree that weather has also played a significant role in delays. Strong Gail forced winds can cause ships to pause movement due to safety concerns.

Whitefish Bay March 2022.jpg
Courtesy of the Lake Carriers' Association
Over a dozen cargo vessels were delayed in White Fish Bay during the first week of the 2022 Great Lakes shipping due to strong winds and ice conditions.

"It is true the wind and temperatures combined to make icebreaking more difficult than the limited Coast Guard assets were able to handle, which resulted in fewer tons moved and vessels stuck in the ice," said Weakley in his email to WCMU.

Gill mentioned that ice breakers have been deployed and cutting up ice in the Great Lakes since December 29, 2021 and the Coast Guard had dedicated significant time to make sure ships can pass through the Great Lakes.

However, Weakley sees those efforts in a different light, arguing that the Coast Guard was "unable to keep traffic moving in Lake Superior, the St. Mary's River and the Straits of Mackinac."

Rick joined WCMU as a general assignment reporter in March 2022.
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