THE modern docks may be celebrating its 175th birthday - but people living around Southampton have been looking to the oceans for their fortune for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

And according to new figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the area still makes a good living from the sea.

For the data suggests the marine industry, made up of shipping, boatbuilding and leisure, generates at least £831m for the city.

Further economic data gives Southampton’s gross value added (GVA) as 18 per cent – when overall in Britain the average is just eight per cent.

This is largely thanks to its marine sector, which has kept well afloat during the worst economic storm in living memory.

Council leader Simon Letts says the findings show just how important the sea still is to the city.

He said: “We know how significant the marine sector is to our local economy, but these figures provide concrete evidence on exactly how critical it is, not just locally but nationally.

“And in fact we are competing not with Liverpool and Hull, but with international maritime hubs like Hamburg.

“Southampton has definitely positioned itself as an international centre for marine industry.”

His council administration’s support for this sector was a key factor in securing the City Deal status for Southampton and Portsmouth. A joint bid for the scheme allows local industrial investment to be funnelled by local political and economic leaders.

‘Major maritime city’ Most business leaders also agree that the marine sector is a dominant force. One of them, Sally Lynskey, chief executive of Business South, said the latest economic figures prove this.

She said: “We’ve known for a long time that the marine sector has played a major part in the prosperity of the region and these figures definitely endorse that.

“It’s important now for us to communicate these statistics to a wider audience so that Southampton is recognised on the national and international stage as a major maritime city and national marine hub.”

But the marine industry is not just a winner for Southampton.

Just this week Eastleigh MP Mike Thornton was saluting the importance of the marine industry to his constituency He was out and about to witness the work done by the 45 members of the British Marine Federation (BMF) within the area he represents.

He spent the day with members of Hamble Point’s MDL Marinas and also Bainbridge International in Hedge End – the longest-established sailcloth manufacturers in the world.

Mr Thornton said: “I know how lucky we are to have such a strong marine industry here, it’s vital for exports and jobs, and is a great advert for the whole of Hampshire.”

Gordon Coventry, head of sales and marketing at Bainbridge, said: “Many companies in our industry are relatively small, but collectively, we constitute a major sector of the local economy and it is important that those responsible for representing us at national level are well briefed on the issues of importance.”

An estimated 24,400 people are employed in more than 2,500 marine businesses.

Indeed, the Southampton city region is regarded as having one of the most important commercial, research and innovation clusters for the marine sector in the world.

Not only is its busy container port recognised as Europe’s most productive, its universities play a crucial part in training and research.

Presently under way in the University of Southampton is a ground-breaking enterprise with Lloyd’s Register.

This involves transforming the campus’s former Boldrewood building into a £116m research hub, employing 400 staff and providing world-class facilities for marine related research and development.

Over in the port’s National Oceanography Centre, a new multi-million-pound state-of-the-art ship, RRS Discovery, has just arrived, securing the city’s status as a world-class leader in ocean research.

And down on Southampton Water, it is full steam ahead. Today alone 18 merchant vessels are set to arrive at the Fawley oil refinery, Southampton docks and wharfs along the River Itchen.

These vessels carry sailors, passengers and cargo back and forth to ports all over Europe, Africa, China and the United States.

Its container port, the UK’s second busiest, last year handled more than 1.9 million containers and needs space to handle more ships. In August the already busy terminal won three of its transatlantic services operated by Hapag-Lloyd services from Thamesport in Kent.

With business buoyant, Associated British Ports is ploughing £150m into equipping berths 201 and 202 and dredging the channel so the port can accommodate the world’s biggest ships.

And today the Daily Echo can reveal that Midas Southern has won a £3.7m contract to extend a 14,000 sq m dockside warehouse facility, run by Import Services, by 6,000 sq m.

Port director Doug Morrison believes that the ONS figure of £831m could be a huge under-estimate.

Cruise ships alone generate a vast sum. A single visit is thought to make £2.5m for the local, regional and national economies with passengers and crew using hotels, bars and restaurants, taxi companies, trains and the city’s airport, and there is set to be more than 400 cruise calls in 2013.

Another generator of port traffic is the booming British motor industry, which is exporting through the port at such a rate that by next year it will be the number one vehicle exporter.

Mr Morrison said: “I think the future for Southampton is great and I see all our core business continuing to expand. I think the one thing we have to do in the Solent region is play to our strengths and advantages in manufacturing in the marine sector.”