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DULUTH – It was a tough year for the Port of Duluth-Superior, which saw total tonnage drop to its lowest level since 1938. However, the last few months of the shipping season gave officials hope for a brighter year ahead.

The season "will be remembered for early promise crushed by coronavirus, but the late-season rally was encouraging," said Jayson Hron, spokesman for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. "December and January tonnage topped the previous season — significantly, in January's case — and with mines reopening, steel demand rising and COVID vaccinations beginning, it hints at hope for 2021."

The season wrapped up on Jan. 16 as usual with the closing of the Soo Locks at the eastern end of Lake Superior. Total tonnage was 25.8 million tons, about 23% off the previous year's total of 33.5 million tons. That was largely due to a steep decline in iron ore shipments as Iron Range taconite mines were idled in the spring and summer because of the pandemic's impact on the steel industry. Taconite makes up the majority of outgoing cargo from the Port of Duluth-Superior and this season fell 22% to 15.3 million tons.

As mines reopened last fall, shipping picked up, and in December was actually 3% ahead of 2019 levels while January jumped 66% from the year before. There were 137 fewer domestic and Canadian ships calling at the Port of Duluth-Superior compared to last season, though international vessels matched last year's with 85 visits.

Total tonnage across the Great Lakes was down just 1.7% last season, underscoring the importance of iron ore to local shipping and a big jump in grain exports.

Craig Middlebrook, deputy administrator of the U.S. Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., said last season was "one of the most remarkable in history."

"Despite all the challenges throughout the year, it was one of the safest and smoothest seasons on record," he said in a statement.

Among the bright spots for the Twin Ports' season were an increase in grain exports and a record for wind cargo imports.

"Looking beyond the numbers, this port's emergence as a wind cargo hub is an important win for cargo diversity and also for the expansion of renewable energy nationwide," Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said in a statement. "It's been a difficult year under the cloud of a global pandemic, but this freight tonnage record is a much-appreciated highlight."

Ships have now entered winter layup for repairs before the next season is expected to start March 25, when the Soo Locks reopen.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496