(AP) - It's been a weak year for grain shipments out of the Twin Ports, and the threat of a strike that could shut down the St. Lawrence Seaway has dock operators on edge.
The Twin Ports have managed to export relatively few shiploads of grain so far this year.
Ron Johnson, trade and development director for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said that even if a strike is averted, this season is likely to go down as the Twin Ports' weakest ever for grain shipping.
Last year, the port loaded about 3 million tons of grain, mostly onto oceangoing ships - called salties by the locals. This year, Johnson said, it may be lucky to load 2 million tons.
"Our grain business has been terrible - probably the lowest I've ever seen," said Chuck Hilleren, president of Guthrie-Hubner Inc., a Duluth ship agency that often works with salties.
Even if a strike is averted, Hilleren said the mere threat of a disruption has taken a toll on saltie traffic in the Great Lakes.
"I'm sure some business has been put on hold as a result," he said.
However, Hilleren said the strike threat isn't solely to blame for the downturn in grain shipments. He pointed to both exceptionally high freight rates and commodity prices this shipping season.
Johnson said rates have been high for several reasons, including a drop in steel imports into the Great Lakes due to weakness of the U.S. dollar. Without the traditional inbound cargo, shippers have raised rates for outbound rates for grain.
Also, Johnson said the demand for ships to serve growing markets in India and China has pushed up freight rates for the Great Lakes.
Workers who operate Canadian locks in the St. Lawrence Seaway System have been without a contract since April.
They could announce a strike within 72 hours of a Friday midnight Eastern time deadline, and a strike could paralyze the seaway.
Contract talks have bogged down over issues of compensation, pensions and plans to partially automate the locks.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)