Brand new container ships enhance Halifax reefer trade

by CanadianSailings | Jun 10, 2019 | Keith Norbury, Ocean, Ocean Carriers, Other, Other Stories, Shipbuilding and Repair
By Keith Norbury

Tropical Shipping expects to debut a second brand-new container ship on its Halifax run by this July to transport fresh and frozen foods and other products to the Caribbean. “It may even be earlier, but we’re going public with saying early July,” said Gordon Cole, the company’s Assistant Vice-President for Canada, Hispaniola, and the Virgin Islands.

The maiden voyage of Tropic Lissette will come about six months after a sister ship, Tropic Hope, made its inaugural call at the Port of Halifax this January. The ships, capable of carrying the equivalent of 1,145 standard 20-foot shipping containers, are among six new vessels Tropical Shipping is adding to its fleet. “I would say it was fantastic,” Mr. Cole said of the arrival of the Tropic Hope. “It was the first Tropical-owned vessel that we’ve had into the Canadian service.” Mr. Cole added that it was also “pretty special” to have the vessel christened in Halifax. “Godmother” Lori Nadeau, a longtime Tropical employee, performed the christening honours.

500 brand-new cans

Tropic Hope didn’t bring in any cargo on its initial voyage to Halifax. However, it did arrive with 500 brand-new 40-foot containers, including reefers. “That’s one of things that I kind of joked about a little bit is that we’ll never see that many empty containers on her again,” Mr. Cole said.

The containers — each twice the size of a standard 20-foot equivalent unit, or TEU, took up almost all the capacity of the 1,145 TEU vessel, which also has 260 reefer points, according to the company website. The two new ships are products of a US$150 million contract that Tropical Shipping signed with China’s Guangzhou Wenchong Shipyard Co. Ltd. in 2016 to build six new Carib class vessels, according to a press release posted on the Facebook page of Port St. Maarten in the Caribbean.

Tropic Lissette is named for the wife of long-time former Tropical Shipping CEO Rick Murrell, who now works for Saltchuk, Tropical’s parent company, Mr. Cole said. Lissette will replace a chartered vessel of a similar capacity, Bomar Rebecca, on the Halifax run, which Tropical introduced in 2017. Tropical had originally planned to use another of the new ships, Tropic Island, on the Halifax schedule. The first was initially expected to begin service last September and the second in November. “We’ve built four of these ships (so far) and it’s been a juggling act of which ship is going where,” Mr. Cole said.

Tropical Shipping has one sailing a week of out of Halifax. So the two ships are each on two-week rotations that take them to Tropical’s main port in West Palm Beach, Florida, and then to Puerto Rico, St. Thomas on the U.S. Virgin Islands, and St. Maarten, Mr. Cole explained.

Serving 30 Caribbean ports

Tropical serves 30 destinations in the Caribbean. Much of the cargo is transloaded at West Palm Beach for such locales as the Bahamas, Grand Cayman Island, Turks and Caicos, Trinidad, and Guyana. About the only major Caribbean islands Tropical doesn’t serve are Cuba and Jamaica.

“It’s pretty well everything that can go inside a container,” Mr. Cole said of the cargos Tropical ships carry. “There’s a lot of frozen goods. There’s a lot of fresh product for the reefers. There’s building materials, and even some personal household goods as well too, and groceries.”

Most of the cargos go south from Halifax, with very little going north from the Caribbean. Exceptions are organic bananas from the Dominican Republic, as well as mangos and melons. “There’s different items but very limited as compared to the exports,” Mr. Cole said.

In total, Tropical employs about 1,000 people. They include its own crews on the new ships, unlike on the chartered vessels, which hire their own crews. About two dozen Tropical employees are based in Canada, mostly in Saint John, N.B., where the company still has its head office. A few sales people are based in Montreal and Toronto.

In 2017, Tropical moved its Canadian port operations to Halifax. The move has been “everything that we thought it would be,” Mr. Cole said, citing operational efficiencies and connectivity with other carriers, including Canadian National Railway.

Halterm strengthens capabilities

Tropical’s Halifax ships dock at the Halterm container terminal, which has more than 140 longshore workers, noted a news release from Halifax Port Authority in January about Tropic Hope’s inaugural visit. Halterm “strengthened its basic workforce, operational capabilities and its handling capacity to meet its commitments to Tropical Shipping around the carrier’s delivery of the larger capacity vessels,” the release quoted Kim Holtermand, Halterm’s Managing Director and CEO, who called the occasion “a landmark day in our service to Tropical Shipping.”

Port Authority spokesperson Lane Farguson said that “we get excited anytime any of our customers can upgrade their vessels or add new infrastructure because it generally means that their business is doing well and that there is the potential for growth.” Mr. Farguson said reefer cargo is significant for the entire Halifax region. The economic spinoff from each export container of seafood is worth almost $74,000, nearly triple that of an average export container, he said.

“This shows the value of the seafood industry in Nova Scotia, and the importance of having an international gateway so those producers can get their product to international markets,” Mr. Farguson said.

Halterm’s South End Container Terminal has 615 reefer outlets, while the Ceres terminal at Fairview Cove has 500 reefer outlets. In 2018, Halifax handled 54,281 TEUs of reefer cargo, just below the record 56,660 TEUs of reefer cargo in 2017.

Reefer cargo ranks highly

“There is a wide range of refrigerated cargo moving through our international gateway,” Mr. Farguson said. “We see fish and seafood coming from Northern Europe, frozen shrimp from Asia, wines and beverages from southern Europe and the Mediterranean, and specialty fruits and vegetable products moving from Europe and North Africa, with a good portion of it moving into inland markets like Montreal and Toronto via CN’s intermodal temperature-controlled cargo service.”

Blueberries and frozen french fries are other significant reefer commodities. Mr. Farguson could not offer specifics but said that in 2018 frozen vegetables were the fourth largest export commodity and seafood was the fifth largest, with Latin America and the Caribbean making up 13 per cent of containerized cargo activity. While Halifax doesn’t break out specific categories, Mr. Farguson said, “the Caribbean is a major destination for reefer cargo, as is Europe.”

Regarding the latter, Mr. Farguson said that trade agreements like Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, a.k.a. CETA, that went into effect in 2017 “are good for Canadian importers and exporters because they open new markets and create opportunities for growth.”