Import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports hit its lowest level in seven years in February as the number of containers dropped below the 1 million mark for the first time in half a decade, according to the monthly Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and IHS Global Insight. Numbers began climbing again in March and April, but the 1 million mark won’t be seen again before May, and imports will continue to see significant declines compared with last year at least through the summer.

“These numbers come during the slowest part of the annual shipping cycle, so they’re expected to be low, but they nonetheless show the severity of the current recession and its impact on the retail industry,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “The good news is that we’ve already seen the bottom for the year, and month-to-month numbers are already starting to climb. We’re still going to see double-digit declines compared with last year, but the size of the gap is starting to narrow.”

U.S. ports surveyed handled only 847,832 Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in February, the most recent month for which actual numbers are available. That was down 20.6% from January’s 1.07 million TEU and 31.3% from February 2008’s 1.23 million TEU. One TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

The number for February, traditionally the slowest month of the year, was the lowest since 818,342 TEU in March 2002. It was also the first time the total has fallen below the 1 million mark since February 2004, when ports in the survey handled 901,497 TEU, and marked the 20th month in a row to see a year-over-year decline. The last year-over-year increase was in July 2007, when the 1.44 million TEU handled was up 3.4% from July 2006.

Volume for March was estimated at 930,142 TEU, down 19.7% from a year earlier, and April is forecast at 987,371 TEU, down 22%. The numbers are expected to rise above the 1 million mark again in May, but will nonetheless remain well below last year’s levels. May is forecast at 1.02 million TEU, down 21.5% from last year; June at 1.06 million TEU, down 18.3%; July at 1.11 million TEU, down 15.6%; and August at 1.15 million TEU, down 16%.

The first half of 2009 is now forecast at 5.9 million TEU, down 21% from the 7.5 million TEU seen in the first half of 2008. Total volume for 2008 was 15.2 million TEU, down 7.9% from 2007’s 16.5 million TEU and the lowest level since 2004’s 14 million TEU.

“The weak port cargo volumes have left port trucking with excess capacity, and cargo is moving without congestion either at the ports or through the inland system,” IHS Global Insight Economist Paul Bingham said. “Rail operations were affected by flooding in the northern states in March and April but disruptions were not sustained enough to cause significant delays.”

All U.S. ports covered by Port Tracker – Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston and Savannah on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast – are rated “low” for congestion, the same as last month.

Port Tracker, which is produced by the economic research, forecasting and analysis firm IHS Global Insight for NRF, looks at inbound container volume, the availability of trucks and railroad cars to move cargo out of the ports, labor conditions and other factors that affect cargo movement and congestion.