For the second year in a row, the spring shipping season is off to a slow start. Ice still covers much of the lakes and most ports don’t expect to see international cargo ships for another two weeks.
April is historically the busiest time of year for the more than 100 ports and commercial docks along the Great Lakes.
Rick Heimann is port director for Burns Harbor in Portage, Indiana.
Burns Harbor handles more international cargo than any other port along the Great Lakes, including 15 percent of U.S. steel shipments to Europe. But at the end of March, the docks are empty.
On any given year, an average of 500,000 trucks, 10,000 railcars and 100 ships will pass through the port.
It was so cold last year, he didn’t see a cargo ship until mid-April.
Around this time last year, more than half of Lake Michigan was covered in ice. The U.S. and Canadian Coast Guard share the responsibility of clearing the Great Lakes waterways.
Every year, in early March, they deploy a fleet of icebreakers before the official opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a 22,000-mile-long waterway that connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.
But U.S. Coast Guard Mark Gill says it was 13 days after opening up the waterway that the first ship was able to reach the locks.
“And a lot of ships incurred damage because they came out and the ice was too hard for them,” Gill said.
Gill says the Coast Guard logged more than 11,000 hours of breaking ice in 2014.
According to the Lake Carrier’s Association, last year’s icey waterways cost the economy more than $700 million and nearly 4,000 jobs.
Mark Baker is president of the Interlake Steamship Company and a member of the Lake Carrier’s Association. His boats carry steel. Others along this route carry grains.
Baker says it took one his ships 23 days to complete a trip that normally takes six.
“And so what happened there was, their inventory levels became critically low. And in some cases, some steel mills last year had to idle plants and cut down on on production,” Baker said.
Baker adds that the the repercussions of a bad shipping season would be felt throughout the U.S. steel industry, which feeds the U.S. auto industry. Baker says his steel is used in small plants in Michigan and Wisconsin.
The Lake Carriers Association wants the Coast Guard to invest in another heavy icebreaker to keep shipping lanes open during harsh winters.
But the Coast Guard says last year’s winter was unique.
At the port of Indiana, Heimann says that's what scary.
“Ice is something that you don’t have control over,” Heimann said. “You can’t just say: ‘Ice be-gone or bring the coast guard cutter in all the time.’"
He adds that the delayed start to the 2015 season doesn't phase him, but he is counting the days until the first ships roll in.
“We are connecting the state of Indiana to the world,” he said. “We’re in the state of Indiana, the heartland of the USA, yet we are only six and a half days away from the Atlantic Ocean.”
Last year, at a time of widespread delays, Burns Harbor recorded its highest cargo volume since the port opened in 1970.
Claudia Morell is a reporter in Chicago. Follow her @claudiamorell
Front and Center is funded by The Joyce Foundation: Improving the quality of life in the Great Lakes region and across the country.