Maritime Trade and the America First Policy

Laker in Detroit

By Harry Valentine 2017-01-29 18:13:57

The new American administration under President Donald Trump seeks to manage an “America First” policy in areas of the economy, including stricter enforcement of America’s borders with neighbor countries Mexico and Canada. America may seek to more strictly enforce the Jones Act in maritime transportation as such legislation promises to provide manufacturing opportunities for American ship builders. 

North American domestic maritime transportation not only involves ocean coastal shipping, it also involves shipping on the Great Lakes where even short distance shipping of bulk freight has proven to be cost-competitive against railway and truck transportation.

America’s Canadian Waterway

As America seeks to provide greater opportunity for local business, America is actually in a maritime partnership with its northern neighbor on matters of inland waterway transportation. The St Lawrence Seaway that connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean includes navigation locks located in both Canada and the U.S. Ships regularly carry bulk freight of American origins along the Seaway, through Canadian navigation locks and along the all-Canadian Lower St Lawrence River on the voyage to European markets. The voyage via the Gulf of St Lawrence is shorter than the voyage via the Gulf of Mexico.

Redirecting freight from Great Lakes ports via the Mississippi River and Port of New Orleans would increase travel duration and the cost of trans-ocean transportation to Europe. There have been times when flooding and droughts have restricted river transportation along the Mississippi River system, leaving the Seaway as a viable alternative corridor to European markets. 

While the new administration may want American maritime trade to sail directly to and from American ports, the soon-to-open super ports at Cape Breton, Canada, can make possible lower transportation costs per container aboard the biggest container ships on the ocean.

Ports and Environment

American businesses that depend on import and export benefit from the inland waterway through Eastern Canada as well as from the transshipment super port in that region. Inland American container ports along the shared waterway with Canada include Detroit, Cleveland and Ogdensburg NY. 

American bulk ports along that waterway greatly outnumber the container ports and include Oswego NY, Buffalo NY, Erie PENN, Toledo OH, Detroit MI, Milwaukee WI, Chicago Ill and Duluth MN. However, the ships that sail along the Seaway between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean are much smaller than ships that sail the Upper Great Lakes.

Several years ago, the American Army Corps of Engineers undertook a study to sail larger ships between Montreal and the Upper Great Lakes. A wider and deeper navigation channel was required for Panamax ships to sail on to Lake Ontario while there was need to lengthen, widen and deepen the navigation locks. There was much environmental opposition to modifying the Upper St Lawrence River to transit wider and deeper draft ships. After several years of study and ongoing negotiation with various stakeholders, the departments of transportation of both Canada and the U.S. abandoned plans to modify the waterway.

Evolving Technology

While the debate was raging about proposals to sail larger ships along the Seaway, the domestic North American maritime sector was developing ocean-capable tug barges that carry domestic bulk freight along America’s coast. As well, Great Lakes ship operators borrowed that precedent to convert older ships into tug-barges to carry greater payload. The Maritime Engineering Department at the University of Michigan developed a proposed two-section ship capable of sailing the Great Lakes, replacing the tug with a ship pushing and navigating a much longer barge. A group called ‘Sea Snake’ developed a concept 1200-foot articulated ship for ocean sailing.

Advances along America’s inland waterway system saw the change from tugs towing groups of barges tied lengthwise and widthwise to each other to tugs pushing and navigation groups of barges secured to each other. On the Lower Mississippi River between New Orleans and Memphis, tugs navigated river trains of up to 40 barges secured to each other and measuring up to 4,000-foot in length. Upstream of Memphis, tugs navigated trains of 15 barges measuring 200-foot x 35-foot and secured to each other three-widthwise and five-lengthwise, mainly carrying bulk freight and in more recent years carrying containers.

Further Developing the Technology

The ship transportation industry seeks to reduce fuel consumption, crew cost and also reduce per-ton and per-container transportation cost for customers. As a result, large container ships and large bulk carrier ships that sail the ocean are many times the order of magnitude of vessels that sail along the inland waterways. The American administration as well as American exporters located along the inland waterways may be willing to improve transportation efficiency and have multiple proven precedents from which to borrow to achieve such improvement while minimizing possible opposition from the environmental movement.

There would be scope to build and test prototypes of these vessels to sail on the Upper Great Lakes and/or across the Gulf of St Lawrence. One option would be the two-section concept that replaces the tug behind a barge with a ship. With the exception of severe storms, the wave conditions and wave heights on the Great Lakes and Gulf of St Lawrence are generally less severe that on the open ocean. Extended length vessels that carry containers would sail to and from the transshipment terminals being built at Cape Breton.

Navigation Locks

With the exception of single step navigation lock at Iroquois ON, all other navigation locks between Montreal and Lake Ontario occur in paired steps. The two-step layout allows for lengthening of upstream and downstream sections of the locks to transit various configurations of extended length vessels built to the identical beam and draft as Seaway-max vessels. An eight-step system of locks connects between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, the Welland Canal that bypasses Niagara Falls. There may be scope to extend the length of the each lock in this eight-lock system to transit extended length vessels.

For container transportation, there may be need to lengthen the seaway-max size tidal navigation lock at the Strait of Canso to allow extended length vessels that sail the inland waterway to interline with mega-size oceanic container vessels. The other transshipment terminal at the inlet at Sydney is free from navigation locks, enhancing its attractiveness to serve extended length vessels that will sail the inland waterway. 

Bulk Freight

A multi-section vessel built to seaway-max draft and beam, designed and built to sail on the Upper Great Lakes could sail downstream through extended length navigation locks to the eastern section of the Lower St Lawrence River where ship-to-ship transfer of bulk freight may occur from inland vessel to mega-size oceanic bulk transport vessel. The cargo may include agricultural produce (wheat, barley, oats, and alfalfa or soy beans), biofuels or lumber. Two-section vessels can economically and simultaneous serve pairs of nearby ports such as Toledo/Erie or Chicago/Milwaukee, where the power section serves the upstream port.

There may be opposition from environmental groups to the transportation of oil and related forms of liquid bulk aboard extended length vessels. Such vessels would each require bow thrusters to maintain directional control during turning and when encountering cross-current conditions. Extending the Seaway navigation locks and developing extended length multi-section vessels for bulk transport would enhance the competitiveness of the Seaway against Mississippi River barge transport.


The development of container transshipment terminals in Eastern Canada would berth the largest container ships afloat and increase maritime container traffic along the St Lawrence Seaway.

There is scope to extend the length of the navigation locks to transit extended length, multi-section vessels carrying dry bulk freight and shipping containers. The introduction of such vessels built to the same beam and draft as Seaway-max vessels, could offer very competitive transportation costs per ton of bulk or per container along the Seaway.

American exporters of dry bulk could benefit from the operation of extended length vessels that carry greater payload, along the Seaway

There is scope to develop multi-section vessel technology to sail on the Great Lakes and/or across the Gulf of St Lawrence, bodies of water where such vessels may be tested and refined.

Improving the St Lawrence Seaway for the mutual benefit of American exporters, Canadian exporters as well as American and Canadian importers would require international cooperation between the Trump administration and the Government of Canada

Barges of 200-foot length and 35-foot beam are regularly connected three-abreast by five-lengthwise on the Mississippi River system and transit through locks that measure over 105-foot width by 1,200-foot length. Lengthening navigation locks along the St Lawrence Seaway is technically possible and comparatively low cost.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.