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The world's waterways—from inland lakes and rivers to oceans and seas—carry goods and people worldwide. Freighters and container ships move cargo; tankers move oil; roll-on/roll-off ships move cars and other vehicles; and cruise ships carry people to far-flung destinations. Unless you live near ocean ports or busy riverways, you might not realize the reach of impact of this business sector, also called the maritime industry.

In 2018, the global maritime trade grew at a slower pace than the previous year, at 11 billion tons, according to a United Nations trade report. Volumes expanded by 4.1 percent in 2017, and had dropped to 2.7 percent by 2018. Trade tensions between the United States and China have contributed to supply chain disruptions, which could intensify if tariff hikes continue. On the other hand, bulk carriers, oil tankers, container ships, and gas carriers have experienced increases in ship deliveries since 2014. In 2020, the International Maritime Organization introduced new regulation of sulphur fuel limits, which is expected to affect the shipping market. The United Nations projected 3.4 percent growth in the shipping industry from 2019 through 2024. However, this projection is yet to be updated to reflect the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the industry, including challenges due to new health and safety protocols, overwhelming demand for various supplies, and transportation and supply chain problems. In recent years, liner shipping was estimated to contribute about $183.3 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) and support 4.2 million jobs. Those numbers jumped to $436.6 billion and 13.5 million when indirect contributions are factored in. Water transportation moves about 70 percent of all U.S. international trade, including 72 percent of U.S. exports by tonnage. International shipping moves more than 80 percent of global trade to people and communities across the globe.

In the U.S. shipping industry, cargo is transported on America's domestic waterways and on international waters among U.S. holdings and territories. Deep-sea foreign shipping of general cargo, and dry and liquid bulk is part of the U.S. shipping industry as well.

The U.S. water transportation industry employs about 83,400 people. Employment is expected to decline slightly in the coming years, but water transportation workers will always be needed, especially marine oilers and sailors. New types of ships requiring smaller crews and increased use of foreign companies for international shipping may limit growth in some branches of the industry. Although shipping overseas faces special challenges such as bad weather and piracy, it remains one of the greenest and least expensive means of moving goods around the world.