Great Lakes/St. Lawrence shipping industry calls for new icebreaking assets as part of Canadian Coast Guard shipbuilding program

The Great Lakes/St. Lawrence shipping industry is calling for at least five new icebreakers to be part of the federal government’s recent announcement of appropriating C$15.7 billion for Canadian Coast Guard fleet renewal.

Last week, Chamber of Marine Commerce President Bruce Burrows was in attendance as the Coast Guard dedicated the Captain Molly Kool into service at its homeport of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. The Captain Molly Kool was recently retrofitted to provide services along the East Coast. However, this asset and two other acquired icebreakers currently being retrofitted will not be adding extra capacity but will take the place of other vessels that will be out of service for major repairs.

“We congratulate the Coast Guard on delivering an interim measure with the Captain Molly Kool and its two sister ships to prevent the breakdown of service. It’s important that these ships be part of the resource pool for Great Lakes/St. Lawrence shipping—which was plagued with ice problems in the Great Lakes this past spring and during the winter on the St. Lawrence River,” says Bruce Burrows. “However, we also need an urgent commitment that new icebreaking vessels will be built within the next five to 10 years for our region as part of the recently announced program for Coast Guard fleet renewal.”

Canadian and U.S. Coast Guard crews worked tirelessly during the Great Lakes spring breakout, but were hampered by the age and condition of the fleets at their disposal. Two U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers were out of service in March and a Canadian icebreaker assigned to Lake Superior was only able to operate at 60 percent of capability and was idled in April due to mechanical issues.

Ice buildups in the St. Lawrence River during January also led to eight container ships being stuck at the Port of Montreal and 10 others at other Quebec ports.

“We need to preserve the international reputation of the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence navigation system as being a reliable trade gateway that’s open for business,” says Burrows. “But it’s not just about dealing with service breakdowns due to the aging fleet—we need more overall capacity. Unpredictable weather events are becoming the new normal and we urge the government to recognize that we need additional ships for contingency purposes.”

In the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence region, the cost to the Canadian economy of a Canadian vessel being delayed impacting cargo delivery is estimated at over C$500,000 a day.

Overall, ships transport more than 230 million metric tons of goods worth over C$100 billion on the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence River waterway, generating more than C$60 billion in economic activity and supporting 329,000 jobs in Canada and the U.S.

That economic contribution is only set to increase as ports and their customers invest in increasing the capacity of the waterway as well as looking at options like lengthening the navigation season of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

“Shipbuilding is a long process,” says Burrows. “We need to commit to building new icebreakers now to be prepared for the realities of climate change and the cargo growth that is already happening.”

Andrea Lee