The maritime industry should not complain about user fees as long as they are project-specific and are used by governments for their intended purpose, shipping executives told an oil spill prevention conference this week.

"I support user fees as long as they are applied fairly and go to the function for which they are collected - not to the general fund," Jerry A. Aspland told the annual meeting of the States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force in San Diego.Mr. Aspland, who recently retired after serving for 10 years as president of Arco Marine, said a user fee such as that charged in Southern California to fund the Vessel Traffic Information System is acceptable because it fits both of those criteria.

The VTIS fee at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is based on the

size of the vessel. It averages $234. The VTIS is operated jointly by Coast Guard and civilian personnel, and is the nation's only fee-based vessel- traffic system. The Coast Guard operates VTIS free of charge at a half dozen other ports around the country.

User fees are becoming more common as federal, state and local governments attempt to cut operational costs without reducing service or compromising safety. In many instances, industries complain when they must begin paying for a service that was traditionally funded totally by taxpayer money.

Mr. Aspland said such complaints are often not justified. He noted that to bring an average-size tanker into port, it costs a vessel owner $39,000 in San Francisco, $16,000 in Singapore, $58,000 in Sidney and $65,000 in Yokohama. ''If you say you can't afford another $200, something is wrong," he said.

The key to making user fees fair and acceptable is to make the service being paid for as efficient as possible, said Peter Woodward, vice president of the Council of Marine Carriers of Vancouver, British Columbia.

"Then we'll pay the user fees," he said.

In Canada, as in the United States, the federal government is pushing many services down to the provincial and local level. Locally provided services should be more efficient than federal services, and if they are, the user fees are usually justified, he said.

When port and shipping executives object to user fees, it is often not to a specific fee, but rather to the cumulative impact of such fees. They argue that in today's competitive environment, user fees cannot be passed on to customers.

Although he supports the concept of the user paying for services, Mr. Aspland said he, like other shipping executives, could never accept the duplication of government activities that drive up the cost of governance.

For example, he noted that in the San Francisco Bay, 23 different agencies have jurisdiction over the use of property.

Mr. Aspland also recalled how in a three-month period, an Arco vessel underwent 21 inspections from agencies such as the Coast Guard, State Lands

Commission, Office of Spill Prevention and Response and the local fire marshall.

In addition to being redundant, these inspections of well-maintained ships by reputable shipping companies use up government resources that would be better used if applied to rust buckets operated by companies that frequently violate safety standards, he said.

Avoiding turf wars and redundancies and forming partnerships with the private sector must become normal operating procedure for government regulatory agencies as traffic grows and financial resources diminish, Mr. Aspland said.

He said vessel-traffic management will be a significant challenge in the years ahead, especially at load-center ports such as Los Angeles-Long Beach. He predicted that the time will come when traffic volume is so brisk that the time between the departure of a vessel from berth and the arrival of the next ship will be less than an hour.

''Get ready for that," he said.