ELAINE CHAO, deputy maritime administrator with the Maritime Administration, recently spoke before the National Defense Transportation Association in Washington on the familiar theme, so popular among government officials and shipping executives: The decline of the American merchant marine and what could and should be done to reverse the trend.

This time, however, there was a difference. Ms. Chao quoted certain statistics that do not appear to be consistent with those released in the same week by the very agency of which she is deputy administrator.Ms. Chao proclaimed that the United States has currently a total of 736 ''commercial and government-owned" oceangoing merchant ships. (We assume that "commercial" should mean "privately owned.") But she failed to make one important distinction: Almost one-half of this total (350 ships, to be exact) are at present laid-up. Marad's term for these 350 ships, 75 of which are privately owned, is "inactive."

Many of these "inactive" ships are very old and not worth being repaired and overhauled. Reactivation of others may take one year and longer. Granted that statistics can always be interpreted according to the interpreter's requirements, goals and wishes, the indisputable fact remains: The current active U.S.-flag merchant fleet numbers 385 ships: 136 intermodal, 39 general cargo, 18 bulk carriers, 184 tankers, and eight passenger and combination passenger/cargo vessels. But the differences in the interpretation of statistics is not everything. There also are some glaring discrepancies between some of the figures presented by the deputy administrator, and the statistics published by Marad. They concern in particular the use of U.S.-flag merchant vessels in the National Defense Reserve Fleet.

According to Ms. Chao, there are 230 breakbulk ships under the U.S. flag in the NDRF. That's allegedly in addition to 75 ships in the Ready Reserve Force (those that can be activated within five to 10 days). Marad statistics, however, while not making any distinction between NDRF and RRF, lists only a total of 180 - 154 general cargo, eight intermodal and 18 tankers. These, according to Marad, are "merchant types," while there are still another 34 ''military types" - for a grand total in the NDRF of 214 vessels. A footnote states that 27 of these 214 are "scrap candidates."

Marad's statistics on the "United States Oceangoing Merchant Marine" are being issued every month. They are considered to be reliable and accurate.

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