Sea sense

Sea Sense completed campaign
Nautilus and its UK predecessor unions undertook a long-running campaign to end the catastrophic slump in UK shipping and seafarer training during the 1980s. Called Sea Sense, this campaign played a pivotal part in the decision to launch the UK tonnage tax scheme in 2000, together with an associated training requirement – measures which have helped to reverse decades of decline.

For much of the 20th century, the British Merchant Navy was the world’s largest – and British seafarers could be found on thousands of ships all over the world. But in the 1970s it came under increasing pressure from flags of convenience and other countries with more generous support for their shipping industries.

From a high point of 2,173 ships of 52.7m dwt in 1975, the UK trading fleet declined to just 537 ships of 4.9m dwt in 1990 and the number of seafarers employed in the UK shipping industry fell from more than 90,000 to just 26,383 over the same period.

Against this backdrop, Sea Sense highlighted to the public and the British government that the UK is an island nation which continues to rely heavily on ships and seafarers for the safe and efficient movement of more than 90% of its imports and exports, as well as for important safety and strategic reasons.

First as NUMAST, and then as Nautilus UK, we worked closely with other unions and with British shipowners to build a campaign coalition to combat ‘sea blindness’ – the loss of public and political awareness of the importance of the maritime sector. 

This umbrella campaign encompassed a number of issues over the years, including:

  • lobbying the government for a maritime policy which eventually saw the introduction of the tonnage tax scheme and the SMarT funding for maritime training
  • the protection of Seafarers’ Earnings Deduction tax allowances in the face of intense political pressure and successive reviews by the government tax office
  • action to tackle unfair competition from substandard shipping
  • measures to promote the ‘green’ shift of freight from the roads to water
  • fighting the decision to withdraw vital safety services such as emergency towing vessels (ETVs) and offshore fire fighting services
  • protesting against cuts and the possible outsourcing of the Maritime & Coastguard Agency’s survey and certification work
  • lobbying for a properly staffed and resourced Coastguard service


The Union remains concerned that many government initiatives are driven purely by cost-cutting rather than based on assessment of need. We continue to campaign on these issues as Nautilus International. Find out about how we continue to fight to protect jobs and maintain high standards of safety in the Campaigns section.

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