The 2019 shipping season is off to a good start at the Port of Thunder Bay.
The first ship of the year arrived at the port March 28, according to Tim Heney, chief executive officer of the Thunder Bay Port Authority.
The MV Kaministiqua, owned by Lower Lakes Towing, took a load of grain from Richardson International’s Current River Terminal and left for Port Cartier, Que., at the mouth of the St Lawrence River.
As of April 8, 10 grain vessels had been loaded and four others were in port.
Heney said stocks in store at the port’s grain terminals were slightly higher than normal to start the shipping season.
“I think there was around 600,000 tonnes in storage, which is about half our capacity,” Heney said.
“That’s slightly higher than normal but not significantly higher.”
The Port of Thunder Bay is anticipating another busy shipping season in 2019 with shipments of grain and oilseeds accounting for the lion’s share of overall cargo volumes, as usual.
In 2018, the port handled more than 8.7 million tonnes of cargo, including 7.4 million tonnes of grain.
Annual grain and oilseed handlings have hovered around the 7.3 to 7.4 tonne range for each of the past three years.
The types of crops moving through the port are a bit more diverse than they have been in the past, said Heney, but wheat and canola still dominate.
In terms of crops, “there’s been probably a bit more diversification in the last few years,” Heney said.
Shipments of soybeans are becoming more common.
Canola remains the port’s second largest agricultural crop, behind wheat.
Heney said it remains to be seen how Chinese trade action affecting Canadian canola sales will impact oilseed shipments through Thunder Bay.
The vast majority of grains and oilseeds shipped through Thunder Bay are normally destined for markets in Europe, Africa, South America and the Middle East.
It is possible that a prolonged trade dispute between Canada and China could prompt Canadian canola exporters to seek new sales in non-traditional markets outside of Asia.
If that’s the case, canola movements through the northern Ontario port could potentially increase.
“It really depends on how long it prevails … but that’s a possibility if you seek new markets for canola and get some sales, Heney said.
“But again, it would all depend on how long this embargo lasts.”
Heney said shipping conditions on the Great Lakes are improving.
As of last week, shipping channels were broken into the port and winter ice was starting to weaken.
“It (the ice) hasn’t blown out of the harbour yet … but it’s on its way out and it’s not inhibiting traffic at this point,” Heney said April 9.
According to statistics from the Canadian Grain Commission, port terminals at Thunder Bay had more than 650,000 tonnes of grains and oilseeds in storage as of March 24.
Those numbers included 280,000 tonnes of spring wheat, 236,000 tonnes of durum, 63,000 tonnes of oats and 55,000 tonnes of canola.
Over the past five years, an average of 7.7 million tonnes of grains and oilseeds have been handled by the port each year.
That’s equivalent to more than 86 percent of the port’s average cargo handlings of 8.9 million tonnes per year.
Heney estimated that the port’s overall handlings of grains and oilseeds increased by about 25 percent since the elimination of the Canadian Wheat Board.
“It’s been pretty consistent since the wheat board changed,” he said.
“We’re up about 25 percent in grains since those days, and it’s kind of stayed there.”