The Port of Duluth-Superior finished the 2018 shipping season with the best iron ore shipments in five years, signaling a solid recovery for the recently ailing taconite industry.

Total port shipments grew 7 percent from 2017 to 35.9 million tons of cargo, with iron ore composing the largest chunk, port officials said. Iron ore shipments jumped 9 percent to 21.5 million tons.

Iron ore cargoes outpaced “the five-year average by 30-plus percent,” said Duluth Seaway Port Authority Executive Director Deb DeLuca.

Those increased shipments were helped by strong mining and taconite production rates by Minnesota Iron Range facilities as well as warmer temperatures that kept the Great Lakes channels largely unfrozen and open well into January.

“Thanks to favorable ice conditions earlier this month, the last 1,000-footer left Duluth-Superior with [taconite] pellets just two days before the Soo Locks closed on Jan. 15,” DeLuca said. As a result, international shipping in and out of the Great Lakes and through the St. Lawrence Seaway had its “best year in more than a decade.”

In addition to increased ore cargo, grain exports rose 20 percent from a year ago throughout the Great Lakes. While shipments were much less than ore, grain traffic through the Port of Duluth-Superior contributed to the overall results, officials said.

Iron ore mining operations on the Range suffered severe downturns in 2015 and 2016 as the industry flailed against factors such as underpriced iron and steel imports from China and other nations.

At the time, seven Minnesota taconite plants idled, laying off 2,000 workers for up to a year or more.

Most taconite plants have reopened and are now producing at or near capacity. That bodes well for the taconite cargo business, said the Minnesota Iron Mining Association (IMA).

“Shipping is a vital component of Minnesota’s iron mining process,” IMA President Kelsey Johnson said in a statement. The shipping industry is the critical link between Minnesota iron and the steel used throughout the United States.”

More than 80 percent of iron ore mined in the United States comes from Minnesota. There is currently only one other operating iron mine in the nation, Johnson said.