We in shipping are in an industry that cannot seem to find consistent profit making - even in periods of world and national growth. Why is this? It's often too many shipowners ordering too many ships from too many shipyards.

But in addition to overcapacity, we have another problem - an odd mix of lack of public awareness of shipping combined with a lack of trust by the public. That's like the comedian who said, ''How can they dislike me? They haven't even heard me!''In particular, the tanker industry has had to cope with this. Despite an improving safety and pollution record, the public only notices major accidents: Amoco Cadiz, Argo Merchant, Exxon Valdez. The public does not connect the industry with gas in its cars and fuel for its industry and homes. Rather, the public connect tankers to oil pollution.

After years of struggle and excellent work by organizations like Intertanko, the Chamber of U.S. Shipping and the American Waterways Operations and companies, the world's regulators, - including the U.S. Coast Guard - recognize that tankers are among the best-operated ships. Port state authorities are now focusing on bulk carriers, general-cargo and, incredibly enough, cruise ships.

But no one wants to work with, or help, or legislate, or regulate on behalf of an industry that: 1. the public distrusts, and 2. has not promoted the value of its services. We are a hidden industry to the man on the street.

Our challenge is complicated by the fragmentation of our industry - many small companies, many flags, many ship types - and our complex regulations.

But it is not hopeless. Industry consolidation is creating bigger, stronger companies; inferior flags that do not adequately enforce regulations are under pressure; and here in America the federal government has begun to assert stronger leadership.

In 1996, Intertanko, led by its U.S. members, issued a U.S. Port and Terminal Safety Study that analyzed the weaknesses of our maritime port infrastructure. The Coast Guard commandant, Adm. Bob Kramek, publicly endorsed this study and, working with the Maritime Administration's Clyde Hart, created Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater's Marine Transportation System (MTS) initiative.

At the national MTS conference in 1998, all branches of government and industry took the first coordinated step toward developing a national maritime policy that recognized transportation as a system important to our national economy and security.

For our U.S. maritime industry to succeed, we must be viewed not as an old-fashioned niche industry. Rather, it must be understood that we are a vital part of this national and international marine transportation system with major economic and national-security contributions.

Public trust in our safe, environmentally friendly operations, combined with our role in the MTS, will enable us to better achieve our economic and legislative objectives.

At my company, we are strong advocates of shipping as part of a logistics chain. The liner industry is leading the way toward consolidation and intermodal logistics. Our liquid bulk - oil and chemical - industry must also head there.

It is this consolidation along logistics lines that presents an interesting opportunity for U.S. flag shipping.

In liner shipping we have seen Denmark's Maersk, Singapore's NOL and CP Shipping (Canada) purchase Sea-Land, APL and Lykes. Their preservation of U.S.-flag operations indicates the strategic and economic importance of the American flag in an international economy where the United States is the single largest player.

At Marine Transport Corp., our approach has been a joint venture with Stolt-Nielsen, the world's biggest international chemical tanker company. Together we can offer international and U.S. domestic transportation service.

In offering this wider transportation logistical service, we need to compete not only against ships of all flags, but also pipelines, railroads and trucking, which provide door-to-door capabilities.

This combination of flags via joint venture, acquisition, or perhaps pooling is a model we will see more of. It recognizes transportation as a system with U.S.-flag as an important component. For this model to work we need:

* Competitive U.S.-flag ships - helped by the Maritime Security Program, cargo reservation, the Jones Act, and the recently introduced Shipping Tax Reform bill to level the competitive playing field. This is a small price to pay for a competitive U.S. fleet. Such investments and laws have payback to our economy and security.

* To force international flags of convenience to adequately enforce international safety standards on their ships. Intertanko, the International Maritime Organization, the U.S. Coast Guard and other organizations are putting heavy pressure on such inferior flag states.

Raising the standards of all flags levels the playing field for high-quality U.S. and international owners who play by the rules. Substandard ships of all flags need to be eliminated.

This brings us back to the theme the mariner.

Wherever one finds substandard ships, one finds substandard owners, and mariners being dealt with in a substandard manner. Turning this to the positive, when one finds quality ships with first-class owners, one finds mariners who are treated with fairness and respect.

Today's safety culture requires that a true quality shipowner respect his crew, retain that crew, and provide for training - especially in a legal environment where shipowners and crew can face criminal liability for pollution.