About Us

The U.S. Coast Guard's heavy icebreaker Mackinaw ensures cargo can move during periods of ice cover on the Lakes.

The U.S. Coast Guard's heavy icebreaker MACKINAW ensures cargo can move during periods of ice cover on the Lakes.

Great Lakes Maritime Task Force (GLMTF) was founded in 1992 in Toledo, Ohio, to promote waterborne commerce and related industries on the Great Lakes. From the very beginning, its greatest strength has been that it represents a broad spectrum of Great Lakes interests. Vessel owners, cargo shippers, shipboard and shoreside labor, port authorities, shipyards, marine construction companies, and a host of other interests have united under the GLMTF banner to ensure that Great Lakes shipping remains one of the foundations of our nation's transportation system.

GLMTF has played a pivotal role in many issues that threatened the continued viability of Great Lakes shipping. The Task Force worked hard to stop the planned decommissioning of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker MACKINAW, at least until its replacement was built. The new MACKINAW entered service in 2006.

The Poe Lock (second from left) is the single point of failure that would cripple Great Lakes shipping.

The Poe Lock (second from left) is the single point of failure that would cripple Great Lakes shipping.

The Task Force has been a tireless advocate for the second Poe-sized lock at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and has opposed reinstitution of tolls on the U.S. portion of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Yet no issue has invigorated the Task Force as has the dredging crisis. Every member understands that this is a defining moment for the Great Lakes maritime community. If vessels can't carry enough cargo, there is less need for a heavy icebreaker or a replacement lock. If customers can't receive enough cargo to keep their operations going, a new toll on the Seaway is of less consequence. While these issues are important, they pale in comparison to the dredging crisis. GLMTF is focusing the bulk of its efforts to restore adequate funding for dredging Great Lakes ports and waterways.

Download Great Lakes Port Map
Download Table of Cargos Handled by Great Lakes Ports

Great Lakes Shipping

Great Lakes shipping is one of the foundations of the U.S. and North American economies. Each year vessels of all flags work the Great Lakes and load as much as 200 million tons of cargo at more than 100 ports.

The primary cargos moving on the Great Lakes are iron ore, limestone, coal, grain and general cargo. Shipments of iron ore average about 60 million tons a year. Iron ore is the primary raw material required to make steel.

Limestone cargos (aggregate, fluxstone and chemical stone) generally approach 30 million tons per year.  Aggregate is used the construction industry as a base for highways and roads and in building homes, schools, hospitals, office buildings…  Fluxstone is used as a purifying agent in the steelmaking process.  Chemical stone is used in scrubbers to cleanse emissions from powerplants and other industrial activities.

The coal trade generally tops 25 million tons per year.  Most coal moving on the Lakes is used for power generation, but some coal is used in the steelmaking process.

Grain cargos, most of which are exported overseas, total about 13 million tons a year. Vessels in the export trade usually bring specialty steels, heavy machinery and general cargo to the Lakes.

Other cargos include salt to de-ice roads, cement and sand for the construction industry, and potash for fertilizers.

The U.S. and Canadian vessels that work the Great Lakes ("Lakers") are unique in that most are what are called "self-unloaders." The vessels are so equipped that they can discharge dry-bulk cargo without any assistance from shoreside personnel and equipment. Ocean-going vessels (salties) carrying general cargo are unloaded by longshoremen.

Winter in the Great Lakes region brings heavy ice to the Great Lakes, so the Lakes are mostly quiet from late January to early March. The locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan (Soo Locks), open on March 25 and close the following January 15. The St. Lawrence Seaway opens in late March and generally closes by year's end. The Lakes still have significant ice covering them at the opening and closing of navigation, but commerce is able to move because the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards have icebreakers stationed on the Lakes.

Self-Unloading Vessels

Self-unloading vessels (which were invented on the Great Lakes) can discharge dry-bulk cargo at an unimproved dock without assistance from any shoreside equipment or personnel. Because they do not require any land-based assistance, these vessels can literally arrive in the middle of the night, discharge their cargo, and depart before daybreak. They are capable of transporting and unloading almost any free-flowing, dry-bulk commodity, including iron ore, coal, limestone, salt, sand, gypsum, and grain. "Self-unloaders" range in length from 500 feet to 1,000 feet, can transport anywhere from 5,700 to 70,000 tons per trip, and can self-discharge cargo at rates up to 10,000 tons per hour. This not only means that customers can avoid investing in expensive, shoreside unloading equipment, but that their cargo is discharged in an incredibly short period of time, quickly freeing the dock.


Image Courtesy of The American Steamship Company.

The graphic above demonstrates a self-unloader in action. The cargo is unloaded using a system of conveyors built into the ship. The cargo holds are "hopper-sloped", or slanted on their sides, so that the cargo will flow down through gates located at the bottom of the holds. The cargo drops onto a tunnel conveyor belt, which carries the cargo to one end of the ship and transfers it onto a loop or incline conveyor belt system. This system carries the cargo up to the main deck of the ship where it is then transferred onto the boom conveyor belt. The boom conveyor can be lifted and swung hydraulically left or right to position the cargo on the dock or into a receiving hopper as specifically desired by the customer.