Total imports and exports handled by longshore workers at the Port of Los Angeles fell slightly in 2012 compared with the previous year, according to data provided by the port.
The drop punctuated a year in which the country was recovering from the recession and during which the ports faced their largest strike in a decade.
The nation's busiest port processed roughly 6.14 million loaded 20-foot container equivalents - a metric used worldwide by the maritime industry - during 2012. In 2011, the port handled 6.18 loaded containers for import and export.
Compared with 2011, imports were up by about 25,000 containers, while exports fell by about 66,000 containers.
Overall, the port actually reported a 1.7 percent rise in cargo volumes compared to 2011, allowing the port to process more than 8 million containers for only the third time in its history. But the data show that the increase is entirely due to growth in the number of empty containers handled at the port.
Meanwhile, cargo numbers for the Port of Long Beach haven't yet been released, though port officials there are forecasting a strong finish after a sluggish start to 2012. Those numbers are expected to be released on Wednesday.
The Los Angeles port on Tuesday also announced its container volumes for December 2012, a period that coincided with the end of an eight-day strike that affected both ports. Loaded imports and exports fell by 10.2 percent compared with December 2011. Overall, including empty boxes, container volumes dropped by 9.4 percent compared to December 2011.
Ten of 14 terminals at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles closed after more than two years of talks fell apart between International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit, the union representing more than 600 clerical workers at both ports, and their employers representing shipping agencies and terminal operators in Southern California.
The strike, which an arbitrator allowed longshore workers to honor, lasted from Nov. 27 to Dec. 4, slowing the delivery of goods. More than 60 percent of goods from outside Southern California flow through the twin ports.
The shutdown also left ships waiting offshore and at the ports and forced many to divert to other ports.
When determining the broader regional economic impact of the port, economists tend to focus on the overall number of imports and exports and their values. But Jock O'Connell, an international trade economist for Beacon Economics, noted that, for many people who work at the port, a rise in the number of containers - even empty ones - is beneficial because moving empties keeps everyone busy. The majority of empty containers move from the United States to Asia, where they are loaded again with goods and sent back to California.
"The longshoremen like to see more boxes," O'Connell said. "And truckers have to move containers, whether they are empty or not. ... It's all part of the industry, and it's a reasonable thing to count."
Staff Writer Karen Robes Meeks contributed to this report.