Speer: Ice on Great Lakes affecting commerce

Spring is usually heralded with thoughts of robins, early-season flowers or buds on the trees. Along the Great Lakes, spring is heralded in with the arrival of lake boats again in port.

Northeast Michigan residents celebrated the arrival of spring Thursday with slick roads and another dusting of snow in the morning. The plans were for the steamer Alpena to dock at Lafarge and take on the first load of cement for the season, but that wasn’t to be.

The Alpena, which left Detroit earlier in the week, arrived in Thunder Bay Thursday but was stopped cold by thick ice. The commercial tug Manitou, which had been working near the Lafarge dock earlier in the week breaking ice, it wasn’t until Friday that the Alpena reach Lafarge.

Obviously, ice on the lakes is going to make early season shipping a challenge at best. With product to move, industries like Lafarge are anxious to start shipping as soon as possible.

Mid-week the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor reported the lakes were still 82.8 percent covered in ice, down from over 92 percent covered a week prior.

The ice not only is a concern of U.S. shippers but also their Canadian counterparts. On Wednesday the Canadian Shipowners Association issued a news release stating its concern that Canada’s icebreakers will not be able to “create and maintain the routes needed to move key cargo to Canadian and American industries.”

Come Tuesday the Soo Locks, the critical link between Lake Superior and the rest of the Great Lakes, is scheduled to open. The website boatnerd.com reported that for most of this past week the Coast Guard icebreakers Mackinaw and Katmai Bay worked on the St. Marys River and the Soo Locks area in anticipation of that opening. Friday they, along with the Morro Bay, went through the locks and up the St. Marys River. They now are scheduled to cut ice through Lake Superior in shipping lanes to Marquette, then on to Minnesota ports.

That same website also reported another vessel headed to Alpena’s Lafarge plant was slowed in Lake Michigan. The barge Innovation, being pushed by the tug Samuel deChamplain, needed help off Seul Choix Point Wednesday. The Innovation was assisted through that area by the Coast Guard cutters Biscayne Bay and Mobile Bay. Thursday the two cutters helped the Innovation through the Round Island Passage in the Straits and into the eastern ice field.

Local boats aren’t the only ones impacted. The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway has been pushed back from March 28 to March 31 because of the ice, which will make for one of its latest openings ever.

Great Lakes shipping is an important foundational piece to this area’s economy. The sooner product can begin moving via that method, the better it will be for our entire region.