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Ice floats past ships in the Welland Canal near Lock 8 in Port Colborne, Ont., in March, 2014. Despite a shortened season due to a long winter and late spring, cargo volumes on the St. Lawrence Seaway hit a post-recession high.Aaron Lynett/The Canadian Press

Cargo volumes on the St. Lawrence Seaway hit a post-recession high in 2014, driven by global sales of crops and demand for global steel from builders of cars, condos and oil rigs.

Seaway ships carried the most grain since 2000 as traders tried to catch up with a backlog of orders that followed the record harvest of 2013. And factories bought aluminum, steel and iron from international suppliers to meet robust consumer demand.

Total cargo weight on the water route that links North America's agricultural and industrial heartland with international buyers and sellers reached 40 million tonnes, the most since 2008.

For 2015, steel imports are expected to remain strong, but grain is "still a bit of a question mark," said Bruce Hodgson, director of market development for St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp.

For the first time, the seaway in 2014 handled imported road salt, a commodity that formerly arrived at municipal works yards from ports on the Gulf of Mexico and then travelled up the Mississippi River. More than 850,000 tonnes of road salt was imported from mines in Egypt, Morocco and Venezuela in 2014, said Mr. Hodgson, who attributed the new business to 20-per-cent discounts offered to shippers of new lines of commodities or goods.

The seaway is a 3,700-kilometre system that runs from the mouth of the St. Lawrence River passing through 15 locks and the five Great Lakes before ending at Thunder Bay, on Lake Superior. The seaway has 15 major ports – Canadian and U.S. – and 50 smaller ports with access to dozens of rail lines and highways.

A record number of ocean-going ships from international markets bearing raw aluminum, steel and iron destined for manufacturers of autos, housing and oil field equipment sailed through the seaway. These same ships were able to carry grain on their way home, making the seaway a lucrative route for global shipping companies, said Andrew Bogora, spokesman for the seaway management company.

"For the ocean carrier, grain can be an opportunity for the carrier to make money on both legs. If there is an opportunity to make money on both legs, that makes the prospects of coming as an ocean carrier that much more lucrative," Mr. Bogora said by phone. "The ocean carriers are facing a very healthy set of circumstances."

The biggest driver of the 7-per-cent rise in overall volume was the more than 12 million tonnes of wheat, canola and other grains from Western Canada and the U.S. Midwest as the backlog from the record harvest of 2013 combined with the recent harvest.

The record crop of 2013 preceded an unusually harsh winter that the railways blamed for slow service and backlogged grain orders. Farmers and grain companies said railway cutbacks and a shortage of rail cars left them with millions of tonnes of crops in storage bins and elevators.

The seaway had a shortened season in 2014, as a long winter and late spring left much of the Port of Thunder Bay and Lake Superior frozen over. The last ship of the 2014 season passed through Montreal's St. Lambert locks just past midnight on Jan. 1. The seaway typically reopens in mid-March.