DULUTH – The Port of Duluth-Superior has bounced back from last year's pandemic slump with a standout start to the Great Lakes shipping season, driven largely by taconite shipments.

Total tonnage through July reached 15.2 million tons — 31% above 2020 levels and 12% above the five-year average.

"It's been a good first half of the shipping season so far and a vigorous rebound from the COVID challenges of 2020," said Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. Last year the port recorded its lowest tonnage totals since 1938.

"It's been especially good to see iron ore tonnage jumping back above the five-season average," DeLuca added, "because it's a bellwether of positivity for our port and our region as a whole."

Iron ore shipments from the port to steelmakers around the Great Lakes have reached 9.5 million tons so far in the shipping season, which began in March. At that pace it could be one of the strongest years in a decade.

"The outlook for iron ore appears steady," said Duluth Seaway Port Authority spokesman Jayson Hron. "The first-half tonnage doesn't faithfully predict the second half, but there are no major indications of a slowdown in sight."

Taconite comprises the majority of the cargo that is shipped from the Port of Duluth-Superior, the busiest port on the Great Lakes.

U.S. Steel and Cleveland-Cliffs, which mine and process all the taconite produced on Minnesota's Iron Range, have both reported record-setting starts to the year. That's a sharp reversal from the drop in steel demand and steep losses that led to hundreds of layoffs at Iron Range mines last summer.

"Demand for steel is very strong across all sectors, and strong demand supports strong prices," Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves told investors in a July earnings call after the company reported a record $780 million quarterly profit. "Most of our customers are experiencing record profits and learning that higher prices are good for pretty much everyone in the supply chain."

U.S. Steel CEO David Burritt said in a July 30 earnings call the 120-year-old company "has its best days ahead" after its best quarterly results — a $1 billion profit — in more than a dozen years.

Across the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway, officials said grain is the cargo to watch in the second half of the season, as shipments are substantially behind last year's pace.

The Port of Duluth-Superior in recent years moved an average of 1.3 million tons of grain annually but so far this season has shipped just 377,000 tons — 40% of last year's tonnage through July.

"Crop quality, yields and pricing, as well as transportation pricing, will combine as they always do to affect shipments for the remainder of the year," Hron said. "We're monitoring the drought conditions to see what effect that will have on crop yield and pricing in the Upper Midwest as harvest gets underway."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496