BOSTON (AP) _ Merchant mariners gathered at a replica of the ship ransacked during the Boston Tea Party to complain that they belong to a dying profession that desperately needs government help.

''It's deteriorated to the point where we have to ask, is America going to have a maritime industry?'' said Ed Sullivan, a Boston Harbor tugboat captain who organized Friday's protest.

The ship workers, some of whom are unemployed, said companies that once owned American cargo ships now use cheaper foreign boats that aren't subject to strict U.S. Coast Guard inspections.

Red O'Connell, 58, said he has been looking for a ship job since June.

''If a young kid thought of going to sea, forget it, because he doesn't stand a chance,'' he said.

The protest was held at the Beaver, a full-scale replica of the ship ransacked of its tea cargo by American colonists in 1773.

Sullivan said American ships carry 3 percent of U.S. imports and exports by volume while foreign boats bear the rest. There are about 300 ships in the merchant marine today, compared to 1,220 in 1950, he said.

Pat Morris, deputy maritime administrator at the U.S. Transportation Department, said the merchant marine fleet was 490 ships and the value of the cargo carried by American ships is about 15 percent, much greater than the bulk amount.

Morris acknowledged, however, that the fleet was dwindling and that many old vessels needed to be replaced. ''Unless something is done, it is going to decline rapidly in the next few years,'' he said.