Everybody knows about the important economic clusters of the Puget Sound region: aerospace, software and biosciences. With the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we are also important to world-health efforts.

Yet the other critical cluster is hiding in plain sight, when you see the towering cranes at the Port of Seattle or the boats at Fishermen’s Terminal.

Maritime is not a museum piece like sliding logs down to the waterfront. It is a going concern that provides important economic diversity and good jobs, and connects to other Washington bragging rights, especially the state’s standing as an export powerhouse.

We ignore it at our peril. And yet, most of us do.

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“We fully take it for granted,” said Capt. Mike Moore, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. “I don’t think it registers in most people’s minds. But it’s on a par with Boeing or aerospace.”

You might think that’s a little hyperbole from a trade association. But not by much.

A study commissioned by the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County and the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County found that the maritime sectors employed 148,000 statewide in 2012.

The average wage was more than $70,000 a year, a backbone of the middle class where so many places are left to scrap for lower-wage jobs in call centers and Amazon warehouses.

Those who attended the Port of Seattle’s “State of the Maritime Industry” meeting late last month learned a good deal more about where our economy meets the sea. You can still watch the event on the Port’s website.

One thing that’s apparent is the industry’s multiplicity. “Maritime” means much more than the ports. It is the fishing fleet, cruise lines, shipbuilding and repair, electronics repair, lawyers, architects, insurance, firefighting, line handlers, rail, warehousing, truck drivers and government agencies from the Coast Guard to the Department of Agriculture.

“There’s not an easy way to describe this ball of yarn,” Moore said. “I would argue that we have the most diverse and comprehensive maritime cluster of jobs in the United States. But with one strand it can unwind.”

This diversity is a strength and a weakness.

Puget Sound enjoys two of the finest natural deep-water ports in America. It is a short sailing distance from Asia. The connection with Alaska is another huge advantage, from sending oil equipment north to hosting the Bering Sea fishing fleet and seafood companies here.

With climate change causing more fish to move north, the Alaska fishery is even more attractive and that means more potential business here. Building new vessels for the fleet, which is embarking on a major recapitalization, is another opportunity.

Yet maritime doesn’t speak with one voice. That has prevented it from having the same political power in Olympia as aerospace or Microsoft.

No wonder a transportation bill, which is critical to moving freight to and from ports, remains stillborn in the Legislature.

Washington also lacks the kind of integrated maritime strategy, with the private sector, federal, state and local governments, that Canada has used to make Vancouver so formidable and the port of Prince Rupert a rising threat.

Such a strategy would align marketing, regulation and infrastructure investments to sustain and enhance the industries that comprise maritime. It would avoid the kind of toxic competition seen between the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.

One result is that the Puget Sound ports are losing overall market share, especially in container traffic. This at a time when world-shipping lines are consolidating, a wider Panama Canal threatens to take traffic away and Southern California is investing heavily in port infrastructure.

“What keeps me awake at night is that we won’t recognize maritime’s importance,” Moore said. “That we’ll enter a downward spiral and become a second tier or niche port.”

Seattle Port Commissioner Tom Albro put it this way, “We have assets other regions of the world would die to have.”

But listen to maritime executives talk and you see a deeper friction point.

They are virtually united in concern about a $15 minimum wage, Seattle mandates such as sick leave and what they see as arbitrary and unpredictable regulation. They worry about the loss of industrial land to condos, offices and a sports arena.

“Regulatory incursions by our fair city … are not always positive,” said Brian Thomas, of boatbuilder Kvichak Marine Industries. “You’re putting us at risk with these legislative moves. How long can we fight this fight?”

One casualty could be where new fishing vessels are built: the Northwest or the lower-cost Gulf Coast?

Seattle Deputy Mayor Andrea Riniker told the gathering that it’s not an either-or, all or nothing choice. We can have a wonderful new central waterfront after the viaduct comes down and a world-class port. And she’s right.

But this oldest cluster is running up against the ethos of a new Seattle. Even some land owners near the waterfront want to cash out and resent the city’s efforts to keep their land zoned for industrial uses.

“We’re at a pivotal point in the maritime industry in Seattle,” said Port commission co-president Stephanie Bowman.

It has been a century since the Port opened its first facility at Fishermen’s s Terminal and 50 years since containerized cargo revolutionized the shipping industry.

“Now in 2014, we’re at another fulcrum in the city’s history,” Bowman said. “We need to decide if we have a maritime industry in next 50 years.”

There’s only one smart answer.

The number of maritime employers peaked in 2000 and has leveled off in recent years.
Year Employers
2007 2,190
2008 2,180
2009 2,120
2010 2,080
2011 2,080
2012 2,090
Source: Washington State Maritime Cluster Economic Impact Study

The number of direct jobs in the maritime sector has remained flat since 2007.
Year Jobs
2007 58,100
2008 58,700
2009 56,100
2010 56,100
2011 56,800
2012 57,700
Source: Washington State Maritime Cluster Economic Impact Study

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com