Troubled Maritime Industry

July 16, 1982

Report Outline
Merchant Fleet's Decline
Evolving Maritime Policy
U.S. Defense Considerations
Special Focus

Merchant Fleet's Decline

Shrinking U.S. Share of Maritime Traffic

The number of oceangoing, American-owned and operated ships—the U.S.-flag fleet—has been declining steadily for decades, falling from 1,170 ships in 1950 to 520 today. While the United States remains the largest trading nation in the world, it now carries only about 5 percent of its imports and exports on its own ships; 30 years ago more than half the nation's international commerce moved on U.S.-flag ships.

Only 15 of the world's 4,700 dry-bulk ships—those that carry commodities such as iron ore, coal and grain—fly the American flag. This means that 98 percent of U.S. exports of bulk goods travel on foreign vessels. Surprisingly, the steady decline in the nation's $8 billion maritime industry has received relatively little public attention. Said Charles I. Hiltzheimer, chairman and chief executive of Sea-Land Industries: “To my knowledge, no other major American industry has lost so great a share of its market to foreign competition with virtually no public awareness or government concern.”

It is argued that dependence on foreign shipping not only hurts the U.S. maritime industry, it also threatens national security. This is because the nation's merchant ships are counted on in time of war for logistical support for the armed forces. “A strong merchant marine is, of course, important to our economy,” Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman Jr. said recently. “But …to those of us in the national security area, it is an imperative for our continued existence as a secure and free nation.…We cannot honor our commitments to allies and protect our vital interests without this crucial sealift….” The extent to which a nation's merchant ships are counted on in time of war was demonstrated by the British victory over Argentina in the Falkland Islands.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Aquaculture and Maritime Policy
Jun. 10, 2022  Governing the Seas
May 31, 2019  Global Fishing Controversies
Oct. 2007  Oceans in Crisis
Jul. 27, 2007  Fish Farming
Nov. 04, 2005  Saving the Oceans
Aug. 02, 2002  Threatened Fisheries
Sep. 27, 1985  Whaling: End of an Era
Jul. 16, 1982  Troubled Maritime Industry
Jun. 07, 1974  Oceanic Law
Sep. 29, 1965  National Maritime Policy
Sep. 04, 1963  Fishing Rights and Territorial Waters
Oct. 05, 1955  Territorial Waters and the High Seas
Jul. 21, 1954  Plight of the Maritime Industry
Jul. 10, 1935  Merchant Marine Policy of the United States
Jan. 15, 1929  Sea Power and Sea Law
Jul. 24, 1928  Government Aid to the Merchant Marine
Oct. 17, 1925  The Merchant Marine Problem
Apr. 26, 1924  The New Merchant Marine Situation
Defense Technology and Force Planning
Water Transportation and Safety