March 23 - The Port of Duluth-Superior, which sees the start of its 2015 commercial shipping season today, is anticipating a banner year for project cargoes.

Duluth Seaway Port Authority executive director Vanta Coda said: "This Port sits at the nexus of multiple energy sectors, so we'll be seeing several shipments of equipment heading in from Europe and elsewhere destined for wind energy installations and oil/gas fields further north and west.

"All told, the Port of Duluth-Superior should see a 2 percent increase in activity during 2015. Headwinds do exist in the decline of commodity pricing (such as iron ore and oil). And the strengthening US dollar will challenge exports, however import prospects will improve."

Later today, the first two US-flag lakers are on schedule to depart the port, although there is still a significant amount of ice cover on the eastern edge of Lake Superior. The US Coast Guard cutter Alder will be working in tandem with USCGC Mackinaw to lay tracks and provide escorts for vessels as needed through that eastern ice pack to and from the Soo Locks, which provide the gateway for lake carriers.

Soo Locks are one of 16 sets of locks along the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway that allows oceangoing ships ("salties") to move breakbulk and project cargoes in and out of North America's heartland and deliver Midwestern grains to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

"Against what seemed like insurmountable odds with everything Mother Nature threw at us from beginning to end, the Port of Duluth-Superior wrapped up the 2014 shipping season a full 2.3 percent ahead of expectations, having moved over 37.5 million short tons (34 million tonnes) of cargo," added Coda. "There are still some formidable ice challenges along the Great Lakes-Seaway, but nowhere near what the fleets were facing at this same time last year."

The port said it is more difficult to predict the arrival of its first oceangoing vessel. The Seaway locks (the Montreal/Lake Ontario section and Welland Canal) will not reopen for business this year until April 2, so it will be at least another week later before the Port of Duluth-Superior will see its first saltie.