Civilian containerized cargo traffic between American and foreign ports rose for almost all ocean carriers last year, according to data compiled by Port Import/Export Reporting Service, a unit of The Journal of Commerce.

The growth was so strong that all but one of the top 18 lines, accounting for 71 percent of the total traffic, showed gains.Overall, U.S. international container traffic grew by 8 percent to the equivalent of 9.07 million 20-foot containers, known as TEUs, from 8.43 million TEUs in 1988.

Sea-Land Service Inc. was the No. 1 carrier, with 852,904 TEUs.

Reflecting the U.S. trade deficit, export volume trailed import volume by 19 percent, but export growth, fueled by a weaker U.S. dollar that has brought down the price of U.S.-made goods abroad, outpaced import growth.

Imports rose 6 percent to 5.0 million TEUs, while exports grew by 9 percent to 4.07 million TEUs.

The largest carriers dominated the market in 1989. The top four carriers alone - Edison, N.J.-based Sea-Land; Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine Corp.; Oakland, Calif.-based American President Lines Ltd. and Maersk Line of Copenhagen, Denmark - held 33 percent of the market, up from 31 percent in 1988. The top 10 lines accounted for 56 percent of the market last year, and the top 20 lines captured 73 percent.

Top-ranked Sea-Land's overall volume for 1989 rose by about the same percentage as the industry average. But Sea-Land posted import growth of 13 percent, far above its export growth of 3 percent. The PIERS figures show that imports account for 59 percent of overall volume for the subsidiary of Richmond, Va.-based CSX Corp., compared with an industrywide average of 55 percent.

No. 2 Evergreen, however, showed even growth of 11 percent in both exports and imports.

Twelfth-ranked Nippon Liner System Ltd. and 19th-ranked Atlantic Container Line were the only carriers among the top 20 to experience a volume drop in 1989.

American President Lines and Maersk Line, ranked third and fourth respectively, both posted exceptionally strong gains.

APL's 22 percent volume gain reflected in part the addition of five giant C-10 containerships that the company brought into service late in 1988, said Gil Roeder, a spokesman.

James Dorrian, director of strategic planning for Maersk Inc. in Madison, N.J., credited his company's 25 percent growth figure to the trans-Atlantic service it began in May 1988.

"It's a tough trade," he said of the North Atlantic, where steamship lines recently failed to work out a capacity-reduction agreement. "In terms of volume, we're where we want to be, but in terms of dollars it's different."

China Ocean Shipping Co., Beijing, was another big gainer. Officials at the company's Secaucus, N.J., office attributed Cosco's 37 percent volume increase for 1989 to overall strength in the Pacific trade, plus the company's recent moves to expand operations and increase capacity on certain trades.

Because the figures are based solely on physical volume of cargo, they may not be a reliable indicator of carrier revenues or profits.

Volume for Nippon Liner System was "distorted" due to the company's recent organization, said Edward J. Kelly, president of its New York subsidiary, NLS (USA) Inc. The carrier was formed through a merger of the liner divisions of Yamashita-Shinnihon Steamship Co. and Japan Line Ltd. in October 1988.

The resulting system was larger but, because of anomalies in certain trades served by each carrier, volume for NLS was less than the aggregate volumes of the two predecessors, he said.

Atlantic Container Line officials declined comment on their company's volume levels.

Scars left from past rate wars can be found in the figures for some lines.

American Transport Line Ltd.'s traffic figure dropped 20 percent last year

because the carrier pulled out of the crowded trans-Pacific trade in December 1988, said Lucille Lane, a spokeswoman. The line currently serves Europe and South America.

Soon after Maersk entered the West Coast-Europe trade in April 1988, Gearbulk Container Services of Seattle pulled out of the trade, complaining of low rates and returning its vessels to its Norwegian parent, which is using them as bulk carriers.

Gearbulk, which still operates in the trans-Pacific, saw its total TEU volume drop 13 percent last year from 1988.

Several other lines suffered large volume drops because they stopped serving some routes in 1988 or 1989. They include Westwood Shipping Lines, Star Shipping A/S and Lloyd Brasileiro.

Italian Line said it disputes the PIERS figures for its container traffic but declined to provide alternate information.

The PIERS figures are computed from manifests filed with U.S. Customs Service. In some cases, the size of a container is unspecified and must be imputed. The lines' own figures, unlike those of PIERS, may include military cargo and domestic trade with Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Alaska.

Allen R. Wastler in Washington contributed to this story.