Import cargo at major U.S. retail ports is expected to hit 12.5 million containers in 2009, sharply below last year's total but it was an improved outlook compared with just a month ago, the National Retail Federation and IHS Global Insight said on Thursday.

The expected import volume for 2009 would be down nearly 18 percent from last year's 15.2 million twenty-foot-equivalent (TEU) containers and would mark the lowest since 2003, they said in a report.

But that 2009 forecast was up slightly from a prediction for 12.3 million TEUs, announced in August.

We're starting to see a pattern where import levels are still below last year but they're not as far below as they were just a few months ago, said Jonathan Gold, vice president at the National Retail Federation, in a statement.

This matches up with other economic indicators that show the recession may be coming to an end.

July was the 25th consecutive month of lower year-on-year decreases in cargo volume but showed an 8 percent increase from June.

August imports are forecast to be down 17 percent from last year. Imports in September, October and November are also expected to be down, 18 percent, 17 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

December imports are forecast to drop 2 percent from 2008, which would be only the first single-digit decline in 2009 -- a year that has seen drops ranging from 15 to 32 percent.

January, 2010 volume is forecast to be down 18 percent from the prior year.

The following list from Port Tracker, which is produced by IHS Global Insight for the retail federation, shows the forecast Sept, 2009 traffic compared with actual Sept, 2008 figures, except for the ports of Charleston and Savannah.

The ports in northern New Jersey and New York City are combined and so are the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Los Angeles/Long Beach -- down 17.4 percent

Oakland -- down 14.5 percent

Tacoma, Washington -- down 26.7 percent

Seattle -- down 4.5 percent

Vancouver -- down 22.7 percent

Houston -- down 17.3 percent

Montreal -- down 20.9 percent

New York/New Jersey -- down 19.8 percent

Hampton Roads, Virginia -- 18.3 percent

Charleston, South Carolina -- second-half 2009 traffic down 25.9 percent from 2008

Savannah, Georgia -- second half 2009 traffic down 15.3 percent from 2008

(Reporting by Laura Isensee; Editing by Bernard Orr)