U.S. shipbuilders are looking to the next administration in the hope that it will help reverse the sharp downturn in their fortunes.

In its just-released review of 1987, the Shipbuilders Council of America reflects the general pessimism about the chances for new maritime legislative initiatives this year.Policies to support these efforts will hopefully come from a change in political leadership, the report, signed by council President John J. Stocker, declares.

The review finds that despite increases since 1981 in Navy shipbuilding, the number of yards and employment has declined because of the costlier and more complex nature of current warships and the collapse of commercial shipbuilding.

The council sees some hope for recovery in the recent findings of the presidentially appointed Commission on the Merchant Marine and Defense.

The commission reported favorably on the need for a commercial fleet and laid out a government-financed building program to be undertaken, with the output chartered out to private carriers.

The commission also supported broader cargo preference requirements as part of its program to bolster U.S. carriers and shipyards.

The shipbuilders council again urged adoption of a policy to encourage construction of warships here for export.

With commercial building having dried up with the end of the construction subsidy program, the shipbuilding industry's strength is concentrated in construction of warships.

The council report says that as the U.S. naval building program slows, the industry must help itself by turning greater attention to the export market for warships.

Attaining this goal, the report adds, would help shipbuilders to find alternative markets, but to do so, U.S. government policies must be changed to make the sale of U.S.-made warships possible.

The report also maintains that because of the support foreign governments lend their yards to offset their costs, it becomes impossible for unsubsidized American shipbuilders to compete on a price basis.

Yet the administration remains silent on the characteristics of the imbalances in international shipbuilding and trade practices, the review adds.

The report catalogs the ups and downs of commercial shipbuilding in the United States the past decade from highs of 80 or more under way or on order in each year from 1973 to 1976 to the current absence of any orders.

The few prospects are two new containerships and a container barge for the West Coast-Hawaiian trade of American President Lines Ltd.

Those prospects depend on the Maritime Administration's giving APL, as a subsidized operator in the foreign trades, permission to enter that domestic service. There is fierce opposition to APL's plans.

The Commission on the Merchant Marine and Defense's build-and-charter plan for 12 ships a year would require government funding and new legislation.

Neither is considered likely.

The council's report also notes the great swing in commercial shipbuilding internationally from 1978, when Europe constructed 48 percent of the world's tonnage and Asia 34 percent to the present when Asia's share is calculated at 65 percent and Europe's at 29 percent.

North America had but 8 percent of the total a decade ago and is now down to 0.34 percent, the report states.