Cargo shipping in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River navigation system supports 227,000 jobs and pumps billions into the U.S. and Canadian economies, says an industry-funded report released Tuesday.
The study describes marine shipping's relation to a variety of industries in the region, including steelmaking, farming, construction and power generation. It says shipping over water saves about $3.6 billion a year in comparison to overland transport costs. More than 160 million metric tons of cargo moves each year on the waterway, which extends 2,300 miles from the Atlantic to the western Lake Superior port of Duluth, Minn.
"This report bears out what we've long known — that the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway is crucial to the U.S. economy," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. He described water shipping as "the single most fuel-efficient and cost-effective way to haul goods from one place to another."
Ships haul a variety of bulk materials on the Great Lakes, their connecting channels and the St. Lawrence River. Among them are iron ore, coal, stone, salt, sugar, train, steel, wind turbine parts and heavy machinery.
Some environmental groups have questioned the wisdom of allowing oceangoing vessels to enter the Great Lakes. The ballast water they discharge in port has introduced invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels, which are believed to have caused billions in damages by clogging intake pipes, destabilizing the food web and promoting runaway algae growth.
The study by Martin Associates, an economic consulting firm in Lancaster, Pa., found ocean ships — known as "salties" — contribute much less to the regional economy than the fleet of U.S. and Canadian ships that remain in the area. Even so, transoceanic vessels provide a crucial direct link between the Great Lakes region and overseas ports, said Steve Fisher, executive director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association.
"They enable our farmers to export grain and sell their products overseas," Fisher said. "They're essential to helping our manufacturers compete overseas."
Thom Cmar, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the report was "extraordinarily one-sided."
"It's undeniable that shipping has a big economic footprint, but the better question is what are the alternatives and what are the investments that need to be made going forward to deal with the downsides of shipping," Cmar said.
Based on 2010 data from 32 ports in the region, the study found that Great Lakes shipping generated $33.5 billion in business revenue and $4.6 billion in federal, state, provincial and local tax revenues.
The industry employed 92,923 people such as dockworkers and ship crew members. Their spending generated an additional 66,005 jobs through businesses in the region, the report said. It credited purchases by businesses supplying services at marine terminals and ports with supporting 67,905 other jobs.
Previous studies by John Taylor, then a professor Grand Valley State University, found that cutting off ocean shipping on the Great Lakes would boost transportation costs in the region by $54.9 million a year — a small fraction of the damage done by invasive species that hitchhike to the lakes in ballast water.
"Policymakers need to look at the benefits of ocean shipping into the Great Lakes versus the costs," Taylor, now an associate professor of business at Wayne State University in Detroit, said Tuesday.
Fisher said regulations requiring oceangoing ships to dump ballast water and rinse their tanks at sea were helping shut out invasive species. Federal regulations and technological innovations to further cleanse the tanks are in the works.
"We're looking for a win-win situation — a health marine industry that supports jobs while minimizing its environmental footprint," he said.