Thunder Bay posts strong grain season

Another shipping season is in the books at the Port of Thunder Bay, and according to port officials, it was a good one.

Thunder Bay’s 2016 shipping concluded Jan. 10 with the last incoming vessel, MV Frontenac, delivering a load of road salt.

Tim Heney, chief executive officer with the Thunder Bay Port Authority, said shipping volumes in 2016 were above average, with total cargoes of roughly 8.8 million tonnes.

As usual, grain and oilseed shipments from Western Canada accounted for the vast majority of the port’s business.

Total grain shipments through the northern Ontario port were in the neighbourhood of 7.5 million tonnes.

That was down slightly from the eight million tonnes of grain and oilseeds that were handled in 2015 but well above the port’s 10-year average of 6.4 million tonnes.

The port’s grain carry-out from the 2015 season as small, so early season grain shipments got off to a slow start, Heney said.

However, grain volumes were strong through the latter part of the year, and December grain volumes were the port’s largest in nearly 18 years.

“Grain ended up at about 7.5 million tonnes, which is down a bit from the last year, but that was mostly due to a slow start in the season,” said Heney.

“December was quite strong — 1.3 million tonnes for the month — … so things were really humming along near the end of the season, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the slow start.”

Canola shipments through the port have increased noticeably over the past few years.

Total canola shipments were close to 1.8 million tonnes last year, which was up from 750,000 tonnes in 2009 and 500,000 tonnes higher than 2015.

Last year’s canola volumes were an all-time record for the port.

“There’s been some ups and downs over the years, but it’s been mostly up since 2009,” Heney said.

“It makes up a fairly significant part of our total grain shipments.”

Thunder Bay’s grain business was also bolstered by the opening of the MobilEx Terminal, which is owned by pulse processor and export company AGT Food and Ingredients.

The MobilEx facility came online in late 2016 and loaded a number of ocean-sized vessels with pulse crops, primarily lentils.

MobilEx is a loop-track, direct-load facility with no on-site storage.

2016 was the port’s third consecutive season of stronger than normal grain shipments.

“It’s been 2014, ’15 and ’16, now that we’ve been operating a level that is probably a million and a half tonnes higher than we had been in grain, so it seems to be sticking,” he said. “I think we’ll probably see a bigger carryover this year as well, so we should start out a little bit stronger than we did last season, but it also seems like these bigger harvests are probably here to stay, at least we’re hoping.”

Heney said the delayed and prolonged prairie harvest may have affected the port’s grain business.

Shipping at the port normally opens in late March and concludes in early January.

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