The Solent's sheltered natural harbours, double tides and inshore waters made it an ideal location for a ports industry to develop. Activity centres on the privately-owned Associated British Ports' (ABP) Port of Southampton and Portsmouth Commercial Port, which is owned and managed by Portsmouth City Council. Cowes Harbour is the main port for the Isle of Wight, and the only location on the Island with deep-water channels capable of handling bulk-cargo carrying ships.
The twentieth century has seen a progressive growth in the scale of port operations in both Portsmouth and Southampton, associated in many cases with reclamation of intertidal land. The expansion of the ports industry is driven by trends in the world market for shipping, which are essentially governed by market forces, the demands of the ship operators, and the supply within the ports. Competition within the UK ports industry and with Northern European ports is intense. The main trend driving the development of the Port of Southampton is the buoyant market in containerised goods - particularly from the Far East, and the increase in the maximum size of the container ships (the post-Panamax vessels).
Cowes Harbour is a key economic driver and gateway to the Island. Ferries and commercial ships enter the harbour 24/7 and carry approximately three million passengers, plus freight and coaches, and 99% of all the bulk shipping import and export goods for the Island - including fuel supplies.
Approximately 600,000 tonnes of cargo are handled annually, including such commodities as fuel, oil/petroleum, stone, shingle aggregates, timber, grain, and general cargo. Ships of up to 100 metres (330ft) in length and with a draft of up to 5.7 metres (18.7ft) use the port and mainly berth at Kingston or Medina Wharves.
Yachting, power boating and the marine services sector also create local jobs and contribute in excess of £25 million to the local economy in Cowes and the Medina Valley.
ABP Southampton is the harbour authority for the Solent and manages one of the busiest ports in the UK. The Port of Southampton is the UK's number one export port, handling £40 billion of exports every year including 90 per cent destined for countries outside the EU. The total trade handled by the Port is worth some £75 billion. The Port of Southampton serves as the UK's number one port for automotive exports, providing British manufacturers with essential access to international markets. The Port is also home to the UK's second largest container terminal and each year handles around one million containers. The Port's critical role has been cemented by more than £280 million of investment over the past 5 years, including more than £50 million in brand new state-of-the-art vehicle export facilities. Southampton is also the UK's number one cruise port, with over 500 cruise calls each year bringing two million passengers. In addition, the Port hosts some three million ferry passengers travelling to and from the Isle of Wight.
Portsmouth International Port is the second busiest cross channel ferry port; the Continental Ferry Port accounts for 80 per cent of the Port's business and is served by passenger and freight ferries sailing to the Isle of Wight, continent and the Channel Islands. Portsmouth City Council has owned the Port since 1839, and it is the most successful municipal port in the UK.
In 2017 the port handled £700m of non-EU trade through Portico, with the import of bananas amounting to £330m. In that year the city was responsible for importing half the UK’s bananas, but the number is now 70 per cent since major shipping line Geest brought its work back to the city. It is the top municipal port in the country for managing non-EU fruit and vegetables.
Its ferry operations play a significant role in its success too, with 80 per cent of passengers travelling to Spain doing so via Portsmouth, with popular routes to France also.
The Port is the Competent Harbour Authority for Portsmouth under the Pilotage Act 1987. That means it has been given statutory powers relating to the provision of pilotage in its waters.
The Port of Southampton differs from Portsmouth Commercial Port in the extent of its harbour authority powers within the Solent. ABP is the statutory harbour authority for the port of Southampton, whereas the harbour authority for Portsmouth Harbour and the Eastern Solent is the Queen's Harbour Master (QHM). ABP and the QHM co-operate in administering shipping movements within the Eastern Solent with ABP taking a co-ordinating role. The harbour authority role encompasses responsibility for the navigational safety of all vessels, including the maintenance dredging of channels to advertised depths, navigation marks, hydrographic data, and control of developments which would affect hydrography by issuing harbour licences.
ABP, Portsmouth International Port and Cowes Harbour Commissioners are the designated Competent Harbour Authorities (CHA) for the Solent. All pilotage of commercial ships is undertaken by pilots licensed by the respective CHA. There are close liaison arrangements between the three CHAs and QHM Portsmouth over pilotage and navigational safety matters. The smaller harbour authorities within the Solent carry similar responsibilities for ensuring navigational safety and close working relationships exist between them and the larger authorities