On the Water

Personal Connections

What do the ships of modern maritime commerce have to do with you?

Most of us take for granted the vital activity in the nation’s ports, along its inland and coastal waterways, and on the high seas. Explore how your life is connected to the goods, resources, and materials that have spent time at sea. And consider how the way we live has an impact on the waters, both at home and around the globe.

Fueling Our Lifestyles

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In 2007, the United States imported around two-thirds of its energy, mainly in the form of some 13 million barrels of crude oil per day. Seventy percent of this oil was transported by huge ships from oil fields in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, and other nations. The rest was imported via pipeline, mainly from Canada and Mexico.

Also in 2007, the United States imported around 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Together, these imports of oil and gas represented 20 to 25 percent of the world’s total daily energy use.

Courtesy of Hyundai Heavy Industries, Korea

Oil Tanker Megalonissos

The oil tanker Megalonissos was built in 2004 by Hyundai Heavy Industries at Ulsan, South Korea, for Greek owners. It measures 800 feet in length and 106,149 deadweight tons (carrying capacity), and its cargo and fuel oil tanks are both double-hulled for extra safety. It falls into the medium-sized Aframax class of tankers and can transport 2.1 million gallons of oil per voyage.

Natural Gas

Wherever oil is found, so is natural gas. For transport as a liquid in special tankers, gas is first compressed and chilled. Americans use natural gas for cooking and for heating and cooling homes. It is also used in manufacturing paper, plastics, and glass, and for fueling city buses and other vehicles. Most of the electrical power plants built in the United States in recent years are fueled by natural gas. Demand for the fuel increases 2 to 3 percent each year.

Photograph of stove by Carl Fleischhauer

Just Look at Yourself!

Virtually all the synthetic materials and plastics that we wear and use each day are derived from petroleum. All kinds of personal care products use petrochemicals, too.

Of the things you are wearing or carrying today, how many were made with fossil fuels?

Gas & Go

Where does most of the oil imported to the United States end up? If you guessed gas tanks, you’re right.

The American barrel of oil contains 42 gallons. On average,

  • 19 of those gallons are refined into gasoline for cars and small trucks.
  • 9 are made into fuel oil for diesel fuel used by large trucks, buses, and trains, and for heating buildings.
  • 4 more become jet fuel.
  • 10 gallons left are for other products (such as lubricants, kerosene, plastics and asphalt for paving roadways, etc.)

Food from the Sea

If you like seafood, you’ve got a lot of company. Seafood consumption in the United States has risen steadily since the 1990s. At the same time, many of America’s regional fisheries have declined, due to over-fishing, pollution, habitat destruction, disease, and other factors. Fisheries that historically helped feed the nation—Atlantic cod, Chesapeake oysters, and Columbia River salmon—have all but disappeared.

Still, all-you-can-eat seafood restaurants are found in most American cities, and fresh seafood is available in supermarkets and seafood specialty stores everywhere. If American fisheries are in such crisis, what are we eating?

Bering Sea Fishery

The Bering Sea, which lies between Alaska and Russia, is tremendously productive. American fishermen are permitted to fish within 200 miles of the shores and islands of Alaska, waters that support the largest commercial fisheries in the United States. After a shift to warmer air temperatures in the 1970s, the population of pollock in the Bering Sea increased by 400 percent. Commercial fishing is rigorously managed to ensure the survival of the species and viable fisheries.

Courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Factory trawlers in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, 2005

Dutch Harbor, on the Aleutian chain of islands in southwest Alaska, is home base for many trawlers during fishing season. Factory processors like the Alaska Ocean offload their frozen products in Dutch Harbor. They also refuel, pick up mail, and load supplies before heading back out to sea.

Modern Fishers

Fishing men and women in the Bering Sea come from all walks of life. Unlike the close-knit, land-based fishing towns of the 19th century, modern communities are made up of people coming together temporarily at sea and returning to far-flung homes at season’s end. Still, the bonds formed while working and living aboard a trawler are strong and people often return to work the same boat year after year.


Aboard the factory trawler Alaska Ocean, deckhands are mostly young men from places like Montana, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Eager for adventure and a healthy paycheck, they sign up for eight months of hard work in the cold waters of the North Pacific and the Bering Sea. They operate the deck machinery for launching and hauling in the nets, empty the nets, shovel fish into the bins, clean the decks, and repair the nets, among other tasks.

This gear was worn on the Alaska Ocean’s fish deck in summer 2007. In all there were six deck hands, a deck officer, and a lead fisherman working that season.

Fisherman’s Life Vest [ca 2007]
Fisherman’s Life Vest

Gift of Alaska Ocean Seafood through Jeff Hendricks

View Object Record

Factory Processor

Both men and women work in the onboard factory of the trawler Alaska Ocean. Some are “drivers,” who place the fish in special conveyors for the filleting machine. Others check fillets for bones, and others fill pans with minced fish, or make surimi (used in imitation crabmeat). Still others work in the freezer, the quality control lab, or the fishmeal plant. Like everyone aboard, the factory processors work 12-hour shifts. Many aboard the vessel in 2007 were Filipino American men and women living north of Seattle.

Female factory workers aboard Alaska Ocean wore this gear in the 2007 seasons.

Factory Processor’s Rain Pants [2007]
Factory Processor’s Rain Pants

Gift of Alaska Ocean Seafood through Jeff Hendricks

View Object Record

Catch of the Day

Americans consume about 16 pounds of seafood per year. Eighty percent of it is imported. Check the catch of the day to see where America’s favorite seafood comes from.

Seafood counter at the Harris Teeter market in Arlington, Virginia, 2008

Photograph by Hugh Talman, Smithsonian Institution


  • The most popular seafood in the U.S. (2001-2006)
  • Per capita annual consumption, 4.40 pounds (2006)
  • Eighty-seven percent of shrimp consumed in the U.S. is imported (2003).
  • Most of it comes from Thailand, China, Ecuador, and Indonesia, and is farm-raised.


  • Canned, it’s the 2nd most popular seafood in the U.S. (2006).
  • Per capita annual consumption, 2.90 pounds (2006)
  • About 84 percent of fresh and canned tuna consumed in the U.S. was imported (2003).
  • Most imported fresh tuna comes from Trinidad & Tobago, Vietnam, and Mexico.


  • The 3rd most popular seafood in the U.S. (2006)
  • Per capita annual consumption, 2.026 pounds (2006)
  • About 80 percent of the salmon eaten in the United States is Atlantic salmon, which is mostly imported and farm-raised. It comes from Canada, Norway, Chile, and the United Kingdom (Scotland).
  • Pacific salmon—mainly from Alaska—is wild-caught and the harvest is regulated.
  • Raising fish in enclosed areas provides a reliable source of protein, but the enclosures themselves can become sources of pollution, and the fish can be susceptible to disease.


  • The 4th most popular seafood in the U.S. (2006)
  • Per capita annual consumption, 1.639 pounds (2006)
  • Eaten as fish-sticks and commercial fish sandwiches
  • Harvested in the wild in the North Pacific and Bering Sea

Cruising for Fun

Cruise ships offer what many people want in a vacation: comfort and predictability, round-the-clock service, amenities and an abundance of food, activities that don’t require individual effort to plan, and exotic destinations.

With only 5 percent of Americans having taken a cruise, and most of them traveling as couples, the industry is reaching out to families and new customers. Affinity cruises are catching on for groups of people with shared interests, from motorcyclists to musicians to lovers of chocolate.

Cruise ship terminal, Port of Miami, 2004

Cruise ships line one of the terminal piers at the Port of Miami. Tens of thousands of travelers leave on cruises out of Miami, Port Canaveral, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, each year.

Photograph by Daniel L. Cowan

Courtesy of the Port of Miami

Cruise Ship Staff

From the moment passengers arrive on the ship, an army of support staff takes care of their needs. Because most cruise ships are flagged outside the United States, most crew members are not U.S. citizens. Like seamen aboard a vessel 300 years ago, the crew of a modern cruise ship is an international mix of people and backgrounds.

Cruise Ship Hospitality

The hotel department is one of the largest aboard a modern cruise ship. Hotel workers handle a wide range of tasks, from welcoming passengers and opening doors to serving breakfast pastries and cleaning staterooms.

Cruise lines design uniforms for their workers to project a special image. Holland America Line emphasizes its Dutch heritage, including the former colonial holdings in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.

Cruise Ship Sailor

A sailor working in the nautical department of a modern cruise line performs a wide range of duties—driving the tender, the small boat that carries passengers to shore for excursions; working the mooring ropes; and cleaning, painting, and maintaining the boats, life rafts, and other deck equipment.

Doorman’s jacket, name tag, and hat

Gift of Holland America Line

Cruise Ship Doorman's Jacket [ca 2007]
Cruise Ship Doorman's Jacket
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Cruise Ship Doorman’s Name Tag [ca 2007]
Cruise Ship Doorman’s Name Tag
View Object Record
Cruise Ship Doorman’s Hat [ca 2007]
Cruise Ship Doorman’s Hat
View Object Record

Sailor’s shirt, name tag, and hat

Gift of Holland America Line

Cruise Ship Sailor’s Shirt [ca 2007]
Cruise Ship Sailor’s Shirt
View Object Record
Cruise Ship Sailor’s Name Tag [ca 2007]
Cruise Ship Sailor’s Name Tag
View Object Record
Cruise Ship Sailor’s Hat [ca 2007]
Cruise Ship Sailor’s Hat
View Object Record

Cruise Ship Keepsakes

Like ocean liner passengers in the past, cruise ship customers often save mementos to recall their experiences. From a special dinner menu to a souvenir stuffed toy, cruise ship keepsakes evoke memories of being pampered, having fun, and relaxing for a few days on the water.

Gifts of Doris Craig, Marlys Johnson, Matthew MacArthur

Dinner Menu

Courtesy of Holland America Line

Consuming in the Global Marketplace

In a global economy the world seems a lot smaller. Not so long ago, products from foreign places seemed exotic and unusual. In the early 21st century, the United States is the world’s leading consumer of manufactured products from around the globe. Check the tags on your clothing, textiles, cookware, and electronics. How often do you see «Made in USA?»

Container Port, Long Beach, California, 2007

Photograph by Ernesto Rodriguez

Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach

Container ships are a major part of this shrinking world. They carry enormous quantities of products and materials that end up in stores near you. In 2006 alone, about 18 million containers stuffed with cargoes of all sorts were sent on more than 200 million trips by sea, rail, and road to places around the world.

How much stuff fits in a single container?

  • 350 bicycles from Thailand, or
  • 200 dishwashers and washing machines from Hong Kong, or
  • 640 vacuum cleaners from Malaysia

How long does a voyage take?

  • A typical voyage from Hong Kong to Los Angeles/ Long Beach takes two weeks.

What happens when the ship arrives in the United States?

  • Each container is lifted off the ship by a longshoreman operating a giant gantry crane. Within hours the containers are on their way on trucks or railcars bound for distribution centers or retail stores.

What does the United States send back?

  • Because the United States imports more than it exports, two-thirds of the containers sent back to Asia are empty.
  • Top ten exports from the United States to Asia in 2008 were:
    • Wastepaper
    • Plastic and Rubber
    • Seeds, Beans, Cereals, Flour
    • Wood
    • Meat
    • Scrap Metal
    • Chemicals
    • Fruit and Nuts
    • Straw and other plaiting materials
    • Vehicles

What about inspections?

  • Shippers send a manifest to U.S. Customs officials listing each container's contents and everyone who packed or transported it to the pier, before their cargo leaves a foreign port. This information is sent to a central office in the United States where a risk level is assigned. With millions of containers entering the country, only those identified as high-risk are X-rayed or physically inspected upon arrival.

Photograph by Kathleen Tomandl

Courtesy of the Port of Tacoma

Work Aboard 21st–century Vessels

All videos produced by the History Channel.

Ships and merchant mariners...will continue to be a vital part of America’s future.
Albert J. Herberger, Vice Admiral U.S. Navy (Ret.) and U.S. Maritime Administrator (1993-97)