Canadian Marine Pilots' Association Great Lakes 1 Great Lakes 2 Great Lakes 3

Great Lakes Region

Geography and human ingenuity combined to create the impressive inland waterway of the Saint Lawrence and Great Lakes. This 3,700 kilometre artery connects the industrial heartland of North America to the world. Feeding trade along this route are fifteen major international ports, and about fifty smaller ones.

The Great Lakes region is the most heavily populated area in Canada; millions of people live nearby this essential maritime transportation route. In fact, the cargo ships are part of the reason that the population is there: it is estimated that the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence waterway system supports 115,000 direct and indirect jobs in Canada and the United States.

It is vital to the North American economy that marine traffic on this waterway flows smoothly. Even a relatively minor incident could have a major impact on this important route. A bump on a canal lock, docking facility, or bridge support could severely constrain commercial activity in the surrounding region, jeopardizing livelihoods. In 1985, the closure of a lock on the Welland Canal halted marine traffic for two weeks, a problem which would be even more serious now, with many companies relying on "just-in-time" inventory management. The impact is not just local, but reverberates through the entire industrial heartland.

Some of the cargo that travels this heavily populated area requires very careful handling. In a typical year, just under two million tonnes of petroleum and chemical products move through the Seaway and the Great Lakes. Either a collision or the grounding of a ship carrying such cargo could cause serious environmental damage. In 1990, a ship carrying petroleum products blew up on the Saginaw River, killing one person, injuring several others, and spilling thousands of gallons of oil.

Many municipalities and industries get their drinking water from the same waters used by shipping. Recreational boaters are enthusiastic users of the lakes, generating a whole other stream of economic activity. The huge ecosystem of the Great Lakes is already under pressure from pollutants, from invasive species such as zebra mussels, and from demands for water: it is important that marine navigation not add to this stress.

The bottoms of the Great Lakes are strewn with ships that fell prey to the violent and unpredictable storms that descend on the region. Because of its position at the centre of the North American landmass, this is where major weather systems spawned by the northern and southern parts of the continent and both coasts collide. The Great Lakes themselves are large enough to be weather factories, with temperature differentials between the water and air resulting in adverse weather conditions. Fluctuating water levels significantly change the threat profile of submerged hazards, such as rocks or shoals.

There are many challenges to navigating the Great Lakes. The local knowledge and expertise provided by the region's 50 or so Canadian marine pilots safeguards the great flow of goods feeding a vibrant economy, while at the same time helping to protect lives and the environment.

For further information about marine pilotage on the St. Lawrence Seway, please also consult the website of the Corporation des Pilotes du Fleuve et de la Voie maritime du Saint-Laurent.