by Frank Kuin
Newly formed corporate shipping conglomerates have set off a scramble
for survival among the worlds leading container seaports, says Brian
Slack, a geography professor at Concordia.
Globalization in the international shipping industry has led to the formation
of a handful of powerful alliances in recent years, comparable to those
in the airline business, he explained. Slack has been researching the
effects of this development in North America, Europe and Asia.
These very large corporate structures are able to throw
their weight around to win concessions from seaports that are eager
to remain regional hubs on the most traveled international routes, he
Since the carriers have come together in alliances, they have had
to choose between ports, Slack said. As a result, theres
been a tremendous rationalization of port service in the last five years.
For example, Maersk, the Danish industry leader which has absorbed the
American shipping line Sealand, had several ports on the east coast of
North America roll out the red carpet a couple of years ago
when it was deciding where to take its business.
Both Baltimore and Halifax lined up extensive subsidies and endorsements
from land carriers (such as railways) in bids to become Maersks
North American hub only to find Maersk taking these offers to the
port of New York as a bargaining chip.
As a result, Maersk won very significant benefits from the port
of New York, including lower rates than the port authority probably wanted
to offer, Slack said. Moreover, they convinced the port authority
to arrange for dredging to accommodate larger ships a very
This is what the big shipping lines can do now, he said.
The struggle among seaports is one of the focal points in a broad research
project about the effects of globalization on the international shipping
industry, undertaken by Slack in cooperation with two colleagues at the
Université de Montréal and Saint Marys University
Slack and his co-researchers have conducted mail surveys and in-depth
interviews with people in the industry on the east coast of North America,
in Western Europe and in Asia. Specifically, they have traveled to Norfolk
(Virginia), Rotterdam (the Netherlands), Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai
(China). In addition, they have hooked up with a French colleague of the
University of Le Havre, who has been researching the same theme.
People in other academic fields are speculating about the effects
of globalization on the shipping industry, Slack said. We
had an opportunity to provide some real, primary evidence of what these
changes have meant in terms of services, vessels and ports.
Slack and his colleagues have documented large increases in the size of
ships in the last number of years. Theres been nearly a doubling
of size, he said. As well, shipping route networks have emerged
spanning the entire globe, rather than carriers focusing on just the Atlantic
or the Pacific Ocean.
Montreal still an important player
The port of Montreal was not considered in the project because, as Slack
said, its not part of this globalization; it occupies a niche
Though a significant container port on routes between Europe and the Great
Lakes area, Montreal is in a unique position due to its great distance
to the ocean, limited depth of water and the need for ships to be ice
reinforced. As a result, the big international shipping lines are
not interested in coming here, Slack said.
Montreal will continue to be an important player on routes between
the Northeastern U.S., Canada and Europe, he said. What Montreal
will never be is a port engaging significantly in traffic to other markets,
such as Asia.