EASTPORT, Maine — Despite fewer metric tons of cargo being shipped in 2012 than during the previous year, the Port of Eastport had another profitable year of sending dairy cows and wood pulp to ports of call as far over the horizon as China.

In 2011, the deepwater port at Estes Head — at 64 feet the deepest natural seaport in the continental United States — handled 430,025 metric tons of cargo and finished that year with revenues of $1.56 million that exceeded expenses of $1.17 million, leaving a surplus of $390,000. Last year, the tonnage dropped slightly to 411,561, with revenues of $1.63 million exceeding expenses of $1.38 million, generating a $250,000 surplus.

While most of each year’s surplus is rolled over to fund port facility improvements, beneficiaries of the port’s financial success include the residents of Eastport.

“As we’ve done better each year and have been able to increase our margins a bit, the Port Authority has taken an active approach in benefiting the citizens of Eastport, who own the Port Authority,” said Chris Gardner, executive director of the Eastport Port Authority. “One year we were able to provide the city with $60,000 to help rebuild Sea Street, which was badly needed but the city didn’t have the funds. We’ve helped the Police Department by purchasing Tasers and firearms and, most recently, a new cruiser. We’ve helped with repairing the heating systems in Eastport’s schools. When we hired a port maintenance man, we structured the job so that he would also maintain the heating and plumbing systems in the schools at no cost to the city.”

Dairy cow shipments were up significantly last year. In 2012, the port loaded 7,355 dairy cows for shipment to Turkey and Russia, up from 5,666 head in 2011.

“We’ve shipped as few as 400 cows at a time and as many as over 1,000,” Gardner said. “These are milkers and mothers, not beef critters. They’re pregnant when we load them, so each cow really represents two cows, which is helping the buyers to rebuild their dairy herds.”

Gardner said the Port Authority recently was authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to hold live cattle at the port for up to 12 hours before loading. Under the previous rules, that timeframe was four hours from the time the cows were trucked in from a farm in the Androscoggin County community of Turner.

“USDA’s initial restrictions were conservative because this was a new process for us,” Gardner said. “Now that we have some experience at this, USDA sees firsthand the commitment to quality in handling these cows on the part of our workforce. The new 12-hour restriction will make that whole process more efficient, which will help us to show customers why they should continue shipments out of Eastport.”

The paper-grade wood pulp being shipped from Eastport is delivered by trucks from Woodland Pulp in Baileyville. Much of the pulp is shipped to the Far East, with other shipments destined for ports in Europe. For both pulp and cows, ships loaded in Eastport in 2011 and 2012 were destined for China, Egypt, France, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Turkey, Russia and the United Kingdom.

Capital improvements to the Estes Head facility in 2012 included completion of the construction of a $10 million cargo conveyor system. That project was financed with the help of $4.5 million in state bonds and $2.25 million in federal funds allocated as part of the economic recovery stimulus package. The rest of the costs are being covered through direct investment by the Port Authority, Gardner said.

The past year also saw cruise ships — one as small as 184 feet, another a 12-deck behemoth at 644 feet — make seven visits to Eastport’s breakwater port adjacent to the downtown historic district along Water Street. That port is 40 feet deep at low tide and is capable of accommodating cruise ships of any size, Gardner said.

“Last year marked the return of cruise ships to Eastport in the modern era,” Gardner said. “Cruise ships used to tie up here back in the 1920s and 1930s, but it had been decades until last year. It’s a loss leader for us, as our docking fees might be as little as a few hundred bucks. But it’s good for the businesses downtown, and it exposes Eastport to cruise ship companies, which are always looking for new destinations.”

The Port Authority also owns a fleet of three tugboats of various sizes that are used in docking cruise and cargo ships. It recently acquired a tug from Bath Iron Works and had it rebuilt for work in Eastport.

Gardner said the Port Authority has five full-time employees, not counting the 15 seamen who handle tugboat operations. Partners in port operations include Federal Marine Terminals and stevedores affiliated with Northeastern Longshoremen’s Association No. 1 who load and unload cargo. Factoring into the headcount the truckers who haul wood pulp and cows for shipment, Gardner estimates port operations create jobs for 75 people.