China Ocean Shipping Co.'s U.S. cargo volume grew only slightly in the fourth quarter of 1991 after growing in the double digits for quarter after quarter, while other carriers posted surprisingly sharp gains, the latest Journal of Commerce trade figures show.

Despite the recession, ocean carriers as a whole posted a 9 percent gain in shipments to and from the United States in the fourth quarter over a year earlier.Cosco had only a 5 percent gain, according to the figures released by the Port Import-Export Reporting Service (PIERS) of The Journal of Commerce.

"Most lines had a fairly decent fourth quarter," said Don McCallian, general manager and assistant to senior corporate executives at NYK Line (North America) Inc. in Secaucus, N.J.

"The Christmas rush came much later than usual," he explained.

Other carrier executives agreed that retailers held back much longer than usual in shipping goods from the Far East for the Christmas shopping season.

It "lasted all the way through December," said Frank Butters, vice president of marketing and pricing at "K" Line America Inc. in Murray Hill, N.J. The Christmas rush usually ends in mid-November, he added.

The shift in shipping seasons from their usual patterns has continued since Christmas, leading to some confusion, carrier executives said.

"The eastbound market is surprisingly strong right now," particularly over the last two or three weeks, Mr. Butters said.

It would be highly unusual if the eastbound trans-Pacific trade continues to be strong throughout the first quarter, he added.

"Since then (Christmas), we've been pleasantly surprised with the inbound

trans-Pacific," said Ed Kelly, senior vice president and general manager of C.Y. Agency Inc., the U.S. representative of Cho Yang Shipping Co., Seoul, South Korea.

Because of the uncertainty about when the recession will end, retailers are making even greater efforts than in the past to cut back their inventories, Mr. Kelly said.

"People are playing it very close to the chest," he said. "They don't want to carry any excess inventory."

The slowdown in growth by Cosco occurred because of a lull in the Chinese carrier's massive new vessel construction program. Cosco has ordered more ships, so the line's rapid growth may continue in the future, sources said.

The growth in China's economy is a factor in causing the higher cargo volumes from Hong Kong, Mr. Butters said. Better-than-expected shipments from Taiwan now and during the Christmas season also are responsible for the strong eastbound trans-Pacific market.

"K" Line has positioned more containers in Hong Kong to respond to the strong business from there, Mr. Butters said.

According to the PIERS figures, imports during the fourth quarter rose 11 percent to the equivalent of 1,400,594 20-foot containers, or TEUs.

Despite the much ballyhooed export boom, containerized exports trailed in growth, rising 5 percent to 1,232,766 TEUs.