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The container ship Cosco Yokohama is guided into port in Vancouver.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Port Metro Vancouver handled a record 135 million tonnes of cargo last year amid bustling trade with Asia, and the 2014 forecast calls for another strong showing.

Canada's largest port said Monday that tonnage last year rose 9 per cent from the 123.9 million tonnes processed in 2012.

Port Metro Vancouver chief executive officer Robin Silvester noted that bulk cargo volume climbed 11 per cent, boosted by thriving exports of coal and grain.

The momentum is expected to continue in 2014, helped by a rebounding U.S. economy, Mr. Silvester said in an interview.

"We're about trading with Asia, but so much of what goes on in the Canadian economy benefits from a strong U.S. economy," he said. "If we look at the Western Canadian picture, I think we really are in a fortunate position. We've got high-quality resources that are in demand in Asia and we've been building the capacity to be able to handle that through the port. If you're going to pick somewhere to be in Canada, the West Coast is not a bad place to be."

China accounted for 32 million tonnes of exported and imported cargo last year, making it the largest trading partner with Canada at Port Metro Vancouver. Trade with China has surged 37 per cent over the past two years at the Vancouver port. Exports made up 80 per cent of Canada-China cargo tonnage in 2013, up from 76 per cent in 2011.

The second-largest trading partner in 2013 was Japan at 16 million tonnes, followed by South Korea at 15 million tonnes. Cargo trade has increased 9 per cent between Canada and Japan over the past two years, but decreased 2 per cent between Canada and South Korea.

Cargo volume from containers, including imported consumer goods from Asia, rose 4 per cent at the Vancouver port last year to 2.83 million industry standard TEUs (20-foot equivalent units).

Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said Port Metro Vancouver is a competitive gateway for global commerce, and Canada is looking to expand Asian trade opportunities through the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership. Those international trade talks include Canada, the United States and Japan, but not China. South Korea has expressed interest in joining negotiations.

Mr. Silvester said global traffic so far this year in and out of Port Metro Vancouver is off to a robust start, and he sees steady growth in exports of potash, grain and metallurgical (or coking) coal, which goes into the production of steel in Asia. "It's a very pleasing picture," he said.

Port Metro Vancouver is the federal landlord for marine terminal operators such as Fraser Surrey Docks LP, Westshore Terminals Investment Corp. and Neptune Bulk Terminals (Canada) Ltd.

Environmental groups are worried that Port Metro Vancouver will approve Fraser Surrey Docks' application to handle thermal coal, a commodity used by power plants to generate electricity. Fraser Surrey Docks, a marine terminal located on the Fraser River in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, wants to serve as a new staging ground for exports of U.S. thermal coal originating from Wyoming's Powder River basin.

"We've clearly got the opportunity for more coal, even without considering U.S. thermal coal," Mr. Silvester said. "If you look at the long term, B.C. has very strong and good-quality, steel-making coal reserves that the world is going to need for a long, long time. Whatever your views on thermal coal and its place in climate change, there is no substitute for steel-making coal for making steel."

Kevin Washbrook, director of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, said his group isn't pressing to halt plans for increased shipments of steel-making coal by miners such as Teck Resources Ltd., but there needs to be comprehensive assessments of the health and environmental impacts related to expansion plans by Neptune Bulk Terminals in North Vancouver.

He said he is concerned about miners such as Cloud Peak Energy Inc. potentially boosting exports of U.S. thermal coal at Westshore.

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