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Total port tonnage tops previous season, 5-season average

Boosted by a 28-season high for iron ore, total maritime tonnage for the Port of Duluth-Superior finished the 2023 navigation season up 4.5 percent compared to 2022 and up 0.1 percent against the five-season average.

The total float eclipsed 31.7 million short tons, including more than 21.5 million tons of iron ore, the most in a single season since 1995. In the season’s final month, January 2024, nearly 1.1 million tons of iron ore sailed from Duluth-Superior, the most in a January since the onset of electronic record-keeping in 2003. For the season, domestic iron ore shipments neared 14.9 million tons, an 11 percent increase over 2022, and exports posted a 22 percent gain. In all, iron ore tonnage topped last season by 14.3 percent.

Duluth-Superior posted season-over-season tonnage increases across eight cargo categories, led by cement, which climbed 29 percent, and grain, up 22.5 percent. The grain gain included the port’s first shipments of oats since 2021, some of which arrived at Duluth’s Elevator A, which was reactivated in 2023 after its purchase by Hansen-Mueller from General Mills. Durum wheat also provided a highlight, with export tonnage nearly tripling the 2022 total.

Containerized general cargo tonnage also climbed in 2023, nearly quadrupling the previous season’s total. Most of this increase sailed as part of the Duluth-Antwerp liner service that debuted in 2023, a partnership of Duluth Cargo Connect and Netherlands-based Spliethoff.

In all, Duluth-Superior totaled 775 vessel arrivals for the season, the most since 2018. That total included the earliest-arriving oceangoing ship on record (Federal Dart; March 28, 2023) and the latest-departing oceangoing ship on record (Nordika Desgagnes; Dec. 29, 2023), making 2023 the longest international shipping season in port history (277 days) and one of the longest Great Lakes navigation seasons as well (305 days).

When the John J. Boland arrived Jan. 21, 2024, as the port’s last inbound vessel of the season, winter layup officially began in Duluth-Superior, with eight active ships wintering in North America’s furthest-inland seaport. That total is double last year’s count and the most since the winter of 2016-17. More than 150 skilled tradespeople will be performing winter maintenance work on these ships. Depending on the type of work scheduled and the upcoming season’s plan for each ship, it’s not uncommon for companies to invest $2-$3 million per ship in winter maintenance and upgrades.

“With increases in tonnage and ship arrivals, plus the reactivation of an iconic grain elevator and the launch of Duluth’s first regular trans-Atlantic liner service since the 1970s, it was a very good season for our port,” said Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

More than 700 vessels and 30 million short tons of cargo move through the Port of Duluth-Superior each year, making it the Great Lakes’ largest tonnage port and one of the nation’s top 20. The port supports more than 7,000 jobs and contributes $1.3 billion in business revenue to the regional economy.