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Slow shipping season may leave some lakers high and dry

The American Victory (foreground) and Kaye E. Barker sit at dock at Fraser Shipyards with no immediate departure date for this year's shipping season. Clint Austin /

When the Soo Locks open each year, lakers are usually lined up waiting to get through and begin a new shipping season.

But that's not likely to happen when the locks open this year on March 25.

The crew of the James R. Barker doesn't plan to leave the ship's winter berth at Midwest Energy Resources Co. in Superior until March 29 -- a full four days after the Soo Locks begin operating. What's more, the Barker is expected to be the first ship out of the Twin Ports this year, said Jim Sharrow, facilities manager for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

And at least two vessels now tied up in the port have no plans to sail this year: the Kaye E. Barker and the American Victory.

"It's primarily the effect of a weak economy," said Fred Shusterich, Midwest's president. "But it's also partly because of the ice this year. No one is going to risk damaging an expensive boat by rushing out to punch holes in the ice, especially for a season that's going to be on the slow side anyway."

"There's really no reason to rush out there this year," said Mark Barker, president of Interlake Steamship Co., which operates a fleet of 11 vessels, including both the James R. and Kaye E. Barker.

With steel mills operating at only 40 percent to 50 percent of capacity, demand for iron ore pellets is expected to fall in corresponding fashion.

Unless the situation improves, the Kaye E. Barker and the American Victory could sit out the season entirely.

"It's all dependent on whether we see steel rebound," Barker said.

"There's a lot of effort and expense involved in fitting a ship out for service," said Sharrow, who worked many years for the Great Lakes Fleet before joining the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

He still has painful memories of 1982.

"That year the Great Lakes Fleet fit out something like 21 or 22 ships, and by the end of May, almost three-quarters of them were laid up," Sharrow recalled.

Anticipating a weak season, some ship owners put off work on their vessels this winter. For instance the American Victory was scheduled to go into drydock this winter at Fraser Shipyards in Superior. But it remained in the water. Even if its owner, American Steamship Co., wanted to return the ship to action this season, this would require three to six weeks of lead time to handle deferred work on the vessel.

Gene Walroos, Fraser's general manager, said the shipyard currently employs about 90 people, compared with 140 last year, because of reduced maintenance and repair jobs.

Lakers will be setting off in a staggered fashion this season, with most departing the Twin Ports in early April, and some waiting until mid-April.

Iron ore pellets aren't the only cargo that probably will be off this year.

Shusterich predicts Midwest will ship about 1 million fewer tons of coal than it did last season. That's about a 5 percent drop from the record amount of coal the Superior terminal moved last year.

"We're all feeling the downturn," Shusterich said. "It all really flows through the system. If carmakers can't sell cars, steelmakers will reduce production, and everyone needs less electricity, so they need less coal."

Barker said he doesn't really see any indication of an imminent turnaround.

"It's not going to get better until people start buying automobiles and refrigerators and other things made out of steel," said Barker, noting: "That's not likely to happen until consumers stop worrying about whether they're going to have jobs."