Port of Thunder Bay Outlook for the 2024 Shipping Season
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Port of Thunder Bay Outlook

Port of Thunder Bay Outlook for the 2024 Shipping Season

by Scott A. Sumner

I had the opportunity to meet with Chris Heikkinen, Chief Executive Office of Port of Thunder Bay and ask him some questions about the Port.


Chris you recently started a new position at the Port. How has everything gone so far?

“ I have been in the CEO position for 5 months now, but at the Port for 14 years beginning a year after graduating from Lakehead University with a business degree. During my time working at the Port I was able to earn my CPA accounting designation as well.This was an unique opportunity that was born out of the fact that this is a small organization, so our job responsibilities allowed me to get the appropriate work experience that was required for the designation. I'm proud of that as it was tough work doing the job and getting the designation at the same time.”

“ The first five months have gone well as CEO here at the Port although with anything there has been ups and downs. We started the tenure with the first strike on the Seaway in decades- that was an interesting challenge. It has been a great start, we had a great season in 2023 so I was coming in at the tail end of a really good shipping season- that was nice.”

The 2023 season was good for the Port then?

“ In 2023 the biggest story for us was another year of really good potash shipments through Thunder Bay, increasing for the third year in a row.”

“ In 2023 it was about 4 times what you would normally see coming through the Port. We couldn't have predicted it would grow so fast or as much but it did. It demonstrates the capabilities of the terminals here in Thunder Bay with Mobilex and Thunder Bay Terminals which handle that product. Also the agility of the Seaway system to ramp up and handle that much cargo in a quick turn around.”

“ There were a variety of factors that caused this, starting with some supply chain issues in Western Canada, some natural disasters that caused problems on the rail side and of course the primary factor, the war in Ukraine. Russia and Belarus are world leaders in potash production, other that Canada of course. So their product is embargoed by a lot of the world which tightened the supply and made Canada's product more in demand. The Seaway was sort of a relieve valve to get the product to market. Also last year there were more supply chain issues on the west coast. We'll see this year, but Thunder Bay has made it's mark in this industry.”

“ Grain was good and bounced back from the previous year which had drought and heat problems a few years back. That has worked its way out and we had good shipments in 2023. There is also a decent carry over to start off the 2024 season but it is always a bit of gamble with grain each year. I know that there is snow covering the prairies at this time which is a good thing.”


“ The 2024 season looks good as we know there is some grain in the system and still the demand for potash.On the general cargo side of things we are looking at our first shipment of phosphate fertilizer, which is an import product from Morocco going to the farms in western Canada, during the first few days of April. We also have the regular shipments of the steel products. There will be some interesting cargo shipments of heavy equipment for the mining sector as well.”

The Port of Thunder Bay seems to be getting more in demand each year?

“ It has been an interesting time with the number of inquires related to both marine cargo and other types of business development being up.There is a lot of interest in our region for development related to various sectors including mining. The Port can play a role depending on how things go. We are looping in on a lot of interesting conversations right now.”

There is interest in the lands at the Port as well?

“ We have to be really strategic with our land.There are many Ports that have a lot of land holdings so they act more as landlords. Here in Thunder Bay the industry creates the Port Authourity. We have less land holding relatively speaking compared to other Ports, so we try to be strategic to how those properties get developed. We have a brown field waterfront site which we are holding on to for the right opportunity, because it has that marine shipping capability and that can be hard to come by. We do have other properties available for say a freight company or others in the transportation industry.”

Our weather has been unusually warm this winter. How will that affect the upcoming shipping season?

“ This bizarre warm weather bodes mostly positive for shipping. We just got word the Soo locks are opening on March 22nd. Typically they open on the 25th. The Seaway locks are also opening on the March 22nd so will likely have our first ship before the 25th which is a little bit unusual. The lack of ice means means we will be able to start the season with likely very few hiccups.”

“We may not even see an ice breaker to date this year which is very unusual, if not unheard of. Ice coverage on Lake Superior is 5% or less where some years it would have completely frozen over. March is usually where it reaches it's peak so we are usually looking at thick ice and this year there is virtually none.”


There have been some staff changes at the Port recently?

“ We have new people here and transitions including mine to the CEO position.We have a really solid energetic team and nice culture, and work well together as a team. I am very fortunate to have this team.”

The Port is a major economic entity in Thunder Bay and beyond.

“ Yes the Port operates as part of a national transportation system. As an organization we utilize that role and the assets that we have to inject money and activity into the economy. At Keefer in the last ten years we have more that tripled the labour hours in terms of marine cargo handling in our terminal. We see more people working on a regular basis which is what we are here for. A ten year old study said we
created 1000 direct jobs and 1800 indirect or induced jobs. It has to be more than that now.”

Are there any new projects happening at the Port this year?

“ This year we have really exciting capital projects.This could be our biggest year ever for investing in capital. We will have shovels in the ground on a big rail project and have been kinda ramping up to get to this point. Also we are redeveloping a lot of new cargo laydown areas which is necessary. In 2025 to 2026 there is a huge influx of wind turbine projects in Western Canada and we need to expand our laydown
areas to accommodate these massive turbine blades. Our current area won't accommodate them. This involves developing vast swathes of reinforced land to stage the cargo.”“ We are also doing some safety and security upgrades as the Port is a very busy place now. We need to make sure everyone working here is safe and the cargo secure.”“ Keefer Terminal which as an organization, we operate and focus on deriving as much economic impact from that as we can. The goal is to get as much marine cargo through the Port as we can and last year was our best year we have had in that endeavour. We have regular shipments of steel pipe and steel rail, repeat customers that have committed to our Port. It was an exceptional year for wind turbines including towers and blades that come from Europe with 7 or 8 shiploads headed to Saskatchewan and the west.”

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