The Welland Canal opened its navigation season Tuesday amid optimism that cargo shipments will build on last year's gains.
The Peter R. Cresswell was the first upbound vessel through the waterway, which links Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. As a result, the captain of the 730-foot-long ship, Peter Schultz, received the symbolic "top hat" at a ceremony in St. Catharines, Ont.
The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. predicts cargo shipments on the Seaway, which includes the canal, will rise 7 percent from a year ago.
"Transportation of raw materials serves as a bellwether for the economy as a whole, and despite volatile global economic conditions, we have reason to be cautiously optimistic regarding our various market segments," Terence Bowles, president and chief executive officer of the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., said in a statement.
This is the Seaway's 53rd navigation season and the Welland Canal's 182nd season. The opening date was among the earliest in the history of the 27-mile-long canal.
The Cresswell is owned by St. Catharines-based Algoma Central Corp., which is embarking on an extensive renewal of its fleet. The program will start with the purchase of five new Equinox class vessels, described as the next generation of bulk carriers on the Great Lakes.
The ships will be built in China, and the first of them is expected to go into service on the Great Lakes by 2013. The vessels were developed by a team of designers at Algoma's headquarters in partnership with engineers from around the world.
The Equinox class vessels will be able to carry more cargo and move faster than conventional vessels, and their newer engine technology will reduce fuel consumption, leading to lower fuel costs and lower emissions, Algoma said.
Cargo shipments on the St. Lawrence Seaway improved last year to 29.2 million metric tons, after a dismal 2009 total of 26.4 million metric tons, reflecting the recession. The Seaway connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean. Ship symbols dotting the Seaway's website map showed several vessels in transit Tuesday.
One shipment planned for the Seaway is proving controversial.
Bruce Power is making plans to transport 16 massive decommissioned nuclear steam generators from Ontario through the waterway en route to Sweden, where components will be recycled. A date has not been set.
Many environmental groups and First Nations communities in Ontario oppose the shipment, objecting to setting a precedent, as well as raising concerns about radioactive waste. The Canadian Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved the shipment.
Bruce Power has obtained a number of approvals for the shipment but still needs others, said Andrew Bogora, a spokesman for the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. For instance, the U.S. Department of Transportation is still considering it.
"The outcome is pending," he said.