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The MV Yukina is 12 per cent more fuel efficient than its predecessors.

FedNav Group

On a clear day, flying west out of Pearson International Airport over Lake Ontario reveals a constellation of cargo ships crisscrossing the water to busy ports in Toronto, Hamilton and Detroit.

Although they look like toys from this height, these vessels can measure more than 200 metres long and carry upward of 25,000 tonnes of wheat, corn or iron ore. At full speed with their cargo holds full, these massive ships can burn through one tonne of freighter fuel an hour.

But not for long. A new generation of greener vessels is setting sail on the St. Lawrence Seaway. Shippers have started to revitalize their aging fleets and will outfit vessels with more efficient, eco-friendly engines and advanced ballast technologies. And they stand to improve their margins, too.

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The MV Yukina is the first of these ships. Twelve per cent more efficient than its predecessors, it saves 770 tonnes of fuel a year and releases 2,500 fewer tonnes of carbon dioxide.

"If you're saving fuel, you're saving money, and you're limiting the environmental costs at the same time," says Paul Pathy, president and co-CEO of Montreal-based Fednav Group, owners of the Hong Kong-built Yukina and one of the largest ocean-going users of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

"Regulations are coming in to push the industry to be more environmentally friendly. We think that's a good thing," Mr. Pathy adds. "We love to operate at a higher level because it drives out the bargain basement guys." In 2012 and 2013, the Yukina's two sister ships will be let loose on the Seaway.

Fednav isn't the only player in the push to make Great Lakes shipping greener and more efficient.

Fleet renewal must start now to maintain a thriving shipping industry in Canada, Gerald Carter, president of Canada Steamship Lines (CSL), has said.

CSL plans to introduce five environmentally friendly ships to Canadian waters in the next few years. Two lake freighters, or lakers, for CSL's domestic fleet and one Panamax vessel for CSL International are being built at the Chengxi Shipyard on China's Yangtze River.

Equipped with EPA-certified Tier II engines like the Yukina's, these ships share customized hull designs that increase fuel efficiency and manoeuvrability. They also boast reinforced, double-hulled fuel tanks to fortify against spills – an important feature after up to 200 tonnes of diesel leaked from one vessel after it ran aground last summer in Quebec.

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Nevertheless, when these new ships first set out, they will be missing one important strand of their green DNA. Inside their ballast wells, which fill with water to keep the vessels stable during ocean voyages, is extra space waiting to be fitted with an advanced water treatment system.

It's estimated that as many as 3,000 aquatic alien species are transported around the globe trapped in ballast tanks every day. Since 1959, 57 of these unwelcome species have been introduced to the Great Lakes when oceangoing ships released their ballast.

Starting in 2008, Canadian and American regulations have compelled international ships to empty their tanks and fill them with saltwater 320 kilometres offshore, to kill any freshwater organisms lurking inside.

"We know that these regulations are an improvement, but we know that the risk still remains," says Jen Nalbone, director of invasive species for the environmental watchdog group Great Lakes United. "We're dealing with a compromised ecosystem and any new invader could cause serious problems."

The bloody-red mysid, a shrimp-like creature detected in 2006, is the most recent invader. But zebra mussels are the poster child of invasive species. When they were introduced to the Great Lakes in the late 1980s, they wreaked economic and environmental havoc. Capable of growing in communities of several hundred thousand per square metre, the mussels clogged water-intake pipes for municipalities, power stations and the steel industry.

In spite of this risk, water treatment technologies – such as heating ballast water or using ultraviolet light to kill remaining creatures after saltwater flushing – haven't been installed on the Yukina because of regulatory delays south of the border, says Mr. Pathy.

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"Canada has ratified the International Maritime Organization's standard for filtered ballast water," he says. But the slow pace of federal regulation on the U.S. side is causing problems. No shipping company can spend $1-million to $2-million on a ballast system that may become unusable or need to be replaced in the next five years, says Mr. Pathy.

Great Lakes United is optimistic that they're seeing progress, with shipping companies updating their fleets and complying with new regulations, says Ms. Nalbone. "However, we're not going to celebrate until there's actually technology working to clean the ballast water and remove the threat of invasive species."

Despite the financial lumps the industry has taken in the past decade, Mr. Pathy sees a bright future for Great Lakes shipping, citing the growing demand for wind turbines in the U.S. and Canada.

"The seaway, of course, is perfectly positioned and equipped to transport these massive things," he says. "Shipping on the Great Lakes is bouncing back. The heartland of North America is not dead yet."

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