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WASHINGTON, DC-Owners of warehouse and distribution properties around US ports are likely to see further strains on occupancy levels in coming months as cargo volumes continue to fall. According to the most recent monthly Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation, which is headquartered here, and Lexington, MA-based economic research firm IHS Global Insight, import cargo volume at major US retail container ports hit its lowest level in seven years in February.

In addition, box throughput dropped below the one million mark for the first time in five years. The report says imports will continue to see significant declines compared with last year at least through the summer.

According to the report, the 10 US ports surveyed handled 847,832 20-foot-equivalent units (TEUs) in February, the most recent month for which actual numbers were available. The number was down 20.6% from January and 31.3% from February 2008.

Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy says the February and March numbers were expected to be low because they come during the slowest part of the annual shipping cycle. Nonetheless, he adds, they show the severity of the current recession and its impact on the retail industry.

“The good news is that we’ve already seen the bottom for the year, and month-to-month numbers are already starting to climb,” he says. “We’re still going to see double-digit declines compared with last year but the size of the gap is starting to narrow.”

Volumes at some ports saw an even steeper plunge than the national average, with West Coast ports particularly hard hit. February container volumes fell 40% at the Port of Long Beach and 32.5% in Los Angeles as the nation’s largest port complex struggled through its worst month in years. Significantly, both ports experienced steep declines in exports as well as imports, but the decline in imports was especially severe, dropping 35.3% in Los Angeles and 43.3% in Long Beach. February import volumes also fell 35% at the Port of Oakland, CA, 25% at the Port of Portland, OR and 36.9% at the Port of Seattle.

Though coming months are not likely to provide a significant reversal of fortunes, the rate of decline is expected to be lower than in February. The report estimates volume for March at 930,142 TEUs, down 19.7% from a year earlier, and it forecasts volume for April at 987,371 TEUs, down 22% from last year. May is forecast to be down 21.5% from last year, June 18.3%, July 15.6% and 16%.

Individual ports are also showing improvement. In Los Angeles, the March import container volume was down only 9.84% compared to a year ago, while the figures for Long Beach and Oakland were down only 18.3% and 10.4%, respectively.

A report from AXS-Alphaliner suggests the declining rate has more to do with seasonal variation than a general improvement in trade. According to the Paris-based container shipping consultant, idled ocean container vessel capacity fell in April for the first time in six months as retailers prepare for a standard summer boost in consumer sales. As of April 13, idle ships represented 10.4% of global fleet capacity, down from 11.3% at the end of March.

AXS predicts the number of idle ships will continue falling for the next few months, then rise again in September and October when the peak season ends. London-based Drewry Shipping Consultants Ltd. projects freight income for ocean carriers could plunge $65 billion to $68 billion this year compared to ’08.

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