One of the longest deep-draft navigation systems in the world is located along the border of the United States and Canada. For more than 200 years, the Great Lakes seaway navigation system, which incorporates the St. Lawrence River is responsible for 20% of all surface freshwater that is available on our planet today.
There are 5 Great Lakes in total: Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and Lake Michigan. Only Lake Michigan is fully in the United States. The U.S. and Canada share borders on all the other lakes.
The Great Lakes seaway flows from west to east, with waters from Lake Superior eventually making their way to Lake Ontario, which outlets to the Atlantic Ocean. From its origination point in Duluth, Minnesota, the entire seaway system only drops 600 feet in elevation.
Important Great Lakes Shipping Industry Statistics
#1. Commercial shipping serves over 100 individual ports within the 8 Great Lakes States and 2 Great Lakes provinces in the United States and Canada. (American Great Lakes Ports Association)
#2. The largest freighter ships serving the Great Lakes shipping industry are able to carry over 70,000 tons of cargo on a single voyage. (American Great Lakes Ports Association)
#3. If one were to stand the ships within the industry on end, they would be as tall as a 100-story building. The largest vessels are able to transport the same amount of cargo as 2,800 trucks or 700 rail cars. (American Great Lakes Ports Association)
#4. On the Great Lakes seaway, there is a system of 16 locks which make it possible to lift or lower ships as they navigate through the various lakes and rivers to deliver cargo. (American Great Lakes Ports Association)
#5. Each year, over 160 million tons of cargo are transported by the Great Lakes shipping industry within the region and to overseas destinations. (American Great Lakes Ports Association)
#6. Between the United States and Canada, the Great Lakes shipping industry generates 329,000 jobs. This creates about $60 billion in economic activity, with $12 billion in local taxes generated. (Chamber of Marine Commerce)
#7. More than 100 million people are supported economically in North America because of the activities of the industry each year. (Chamber of Marine Commerce)
#8. The Great Lakes seaway creates $3.6 billion in annual transportation cost savings compared to the least expensive all-land transportation alternatives which are available. (Chamber of Marine Commerce)
#9. More than $7 billion is currently being spend on infrastructure improvements, additions, or repairs to make the Great Lakes seaway even more efficient than it already is. (Chamber of Marine Commerce)
#10. In 1980, there were just 5 self-unloading cement vessels as part of the Great Lakes shipping fleet. Their total capacity per-trip was 38,360 short tons. In 2012, despite still only having 5 vessels in the fleet, the total per-trip capacity was increased to 74,473 short tons. (Greenwood’s Guide to Great Lakes Shipping)
#11. Since 1980, the number of self-unloading dry-bulk vessels has decreased by 10. At the same time, the total per-trip capacity has increased from 1.65 million short tons to 1.89 million short tons. (Greenwood’s Guide to Great Lakes Shipping)
#12. Straight-deck dry-bulk vessels have seen a dramatic reduction in fleet numbers since 1980, when there were 77 operational. Today, there are only 2 that are still operational. (Greenwood’s Guide to Great Lakes Shipping)
#13. The total number of laker vessels has also decreased over the past 30 years by more than 50%. In 1980, there were 140 vessels in operation. In 2012, there were just 55. (Greenwood’s Guide to Great Lakes Shipping)
#14. There are 85 ports with facilities able to handle passengers or freight along the Great Lakes seaway. Just 37 of the ports are able to handle more than 1 million tons of cargo. These ports are responsible for 97% of domestic cargo in the U.S. moved through Great Lakes ports. (U.S. Department of Transportation)
#15. In 2015, the contribution of the ocean economy to the GDP grew by 5.7%, which was twice as fast as the whole of the U.S. economy. (U.S. Department of Commerce)
#16. More than 152,000 business establishments are part of the Great Lakes and ocean economy in the U.S., providing employment opportunities for 3.2 million workers. More than $128 billion in wages is paid out by this economy. (U.S. Department of Commerce)
#17. In 2015, the Great Lakes and ocean economy increased employment by 3.2%, which was faster than the 2.1% national average. (U.S. Department of Commerce)
#18. The strongest growth within the economy occurred in the marine transportation segment, achieving a 6.1% rate of employment growth. Offshore mineral extraction saw the steepest declines, losing 7.9% of employment positions. (U.S. Department of Commerce)
#19. Inflation-adjusted GDP numbers in 2015 indicate that the Great Lakes and ocean economy was 26.1% higher than the last year of pre-recession levels in 2007, in contrast to a 9.1% increase in the U.S. economy over the same period. (U.S. Department of Commerce)
#20. 14% of the employment opportunities available throughout the Great Lakes and ocean economy involve marine transportation. 21% of the GDP contribution comes from this sector as well. (U.S. Department of Commerce)
#21. The average wage per employee within the marine transportation sector was $72,000 per year. (U.S. Department of Commerce)
#22. More than $1.5 trillion in cargo was imported or exported through the ports of the Great Lakes shipping industry in 2015, accounting for 40% of U.S. trade by value and 69% of U.S. trade when measured by weight. (U.S. Department of Commerce)
Great Lakes Shipping Industry Trends and Analysis
One of the primary import and export points for the United States and Canada is the Great Lakes seaway. Although the recession years saw severe drops in cargo which created doubt that the industry could continue, recent years have shown that the shipping industry in this region tends to be more cyclical than previously realized.
In general terms, the industry is healthy. It provides safe and efficient transportation services for a wide variety of cargo types. New technologies on vessels allow for large cargo hauls, including those over 70,000 tons, to be automatically discharged in 12 hours or less without a need for human unloading.
The number of vessels active in the industry has declined over the past 30 years. At the same time, bigger vessels have made their way into the fleet, making it easier to do more with much less. There will still be doubts about this industry the next time a recession comes around, just as there were in 2007 and 1981. Until then, the Great Lakes shipping industry is going to keep chugging along.