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National Maritime Day 2024: America Still Depends on Ocean Trade

May 21, 2024


Tomorrow (May 22) is National Maritime Day. The staff at the Maritime Administration (MARAD) of the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) reports, “[In 1933], Congress declared National Maritime Day to commemorate the American steamship Savannah’s [1819] voyage from the United States to England, marking the first successful crossing of the Atlantic Ocean with steam propulsion.”[1] The staff at Days of the Year adds, “National Maritime Day is not necessarily about the ocean at large, it is more about those men and women who spend their lives working on and around it. This day specifically focuses on the safety, security, and all the little elements that make up the lives of those on the sea, as well as a little bit of remembrance for how much people have to thank them for.”[2] The staff continues, “Maritime transport and work has been important since the human race first put something that floats in the water and decided to use it to get somewhere or do something. National Maritime Day commemorates the sea, the people of the sea, and the incredible effect it has had on the lives and well-being of humankind. Just to start with the most basic point about it, sea trade has been the largest carrier of cargo in the history of the world. In fact, even the land-bound parts of the Silk Road didn’t see as much cargo and trade-goods moving along it as the oceans and seas have.” The theme of this year’s celebration is “Culture, Climate, and Commitment: The Future of the Merchant Marine.”


The Importance of Ocean Trade


The United States is blessed with the geographical reality of having access to two oceans — the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. This has provided America with unprecedented access to global trade routes and is a major reason the U.S. is the world’s leading economic power. The MARAD staff asserts, “The United States has always been and will always be a great maritime nation. From our origins as 13 British colonies, through every period of peace and conflict since, the Merchant Marine has been a pillar in this country’s foundation of prosperity and security. They power the world’s largest economy and strengthen our ties with trading partners around the world, all while supporting our military forces by shipping troops and supplies wherever they need to go.” Although America relies heavily on ocean trade, it might surprise some people to learn that the only U.S. headquartered ocean carrier (Matson) ranks 28th among the world’s top carriers.[3] The International Chamber of Shipping staff reports, “There are over 50,000 merchant ships trading internationally, transporting every kind of cargo. The world fleet is registered in over 150 nations and manned by nearly 2 million seafarers.”[4] The MARAD staff adds, “Commercial vessels sailing under the U.S. flag carry less than two percent of our import and export waterborne cargoes. The decline in the size of the U.S.-flag oceangoing fleet has come with a corresponding decrease in mariner employment and advancement opportunities and, concomitantly, a decline in the pool of U.S. merchant mariners needed to safely operate these ships, particularly in the event of sustained operations.”[5]


Former military officer Benjamin Harrison, who once attended the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, writes, “Despite having the fourth largest coastline in the world (behind Canada, Indonesia, and Russia), the United States has almost no domestic maritime presence on the high seas today. The US has essentially disappeared from the world’s oceans as a commercial entity.”[6] Despite the decline in America’s maritime sector, ocean trade remains critical to the U.S. economy. According to the USDOT Bureau of Transportation Statistics, “Maritime vessels account for 40% of U.S. international trade value, nearly 70% of trade weight, with trade of goods accounting for 18% of 2020 GDP. In 2020, waterborne shipping carried more tonnage (nearly 1.5 billion short tons) and value (more than $1.5 trillion) in U.S. trade than any other mode of transportation.”[7] Little wonder that Harrison and others make the point that America’s merchant marine is a national security concern. Harrison goes on to point out that America’s main economic competitor, China, is not ignoring its maritime sector. He writes, “The US Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration warns of the sobering fact that China has been investing heavily in traditional infrastructure projects at home and around the world, building port facilities in Asia as well as Africa, and supporting a booming shipbuilding industry.” And the Wall Street Journal reports, “A single shipyard outside Shanghai has more shipbuilding capacity than the entire U.S. naval shipbuilding industry.”[8]


Concluding Thoughts


It remains highly unlikely that the U.S. will revitalize its maritime sector any time soon — if ever. What that means is that America must remain on good terms with friends and allies who can help it maintain access to global maritime trade routes. It also means that America must continue to maintain a strong and effective Navy capable of defending those seaborne trade routes. Even though America’s ocean-going maritime sector has decreased, people working in and with its port operations provide vital services to the nation’s economy. According to the American Maritime Partnership, the U.S. maritime industry involves 74,000 jobs on vessels and at shipyards; sustains nearly 650,000 jobs in total; produces over $150 billion in annual economic output; [and provides] $41 billion in annual wages spent in virtually every community in the United States.” The Partnership concludes, “From the earliest days of our nation, shipping has been the key to America’s economic strength and security. Today, the maritime industry is by and large the most economically sound form of domestic transportation, moving almost 1 billion tons of cargo annually at a fraction of the cost of other modes. Critical U.S. industries depend on the efficiencies and economies of domestic maritime transportation to move raw materials and other critical commodities. … For every direct job in American maritime, the industry is responsible for nearly five indirect jobs elsewhere in the U.S. economy.” That’s certainly worthy of noting and celebrating on National Maritime Day.


[1] Staff, “National Maritime Day,” U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration, 16 April 2024.
[2] Staff, “National Maritime Day,” Days of the Year.
[3] Staff, “Top 10 Carriers in 2024,” Shipsgo Blog, 16 February 2024.
[4] Staff, “Shipping and World Trade: Global Supply and Demand for Seafarers,” International Chamber of Shipping.
[5] Staff, Maritime Administration Mariner Workforce Strategic Plan FY 2023 to FY 2027, U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration, August 2023.
[6] Benjamin Harrison, “The US Merchant Marine Is a National Security Necessity,” Fair Observer, 12 June 2023.
[7] Staff, “On National Maritime Day and Every Day, U.S. Economy Relies on Waterborne Shipping,” U.S. Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 12 May 2021.
[8] Staff, “Inside the Strategies That Made China a Shipbuilding Powerhouse,” Wall Street Journal, 22 April 2024.

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