The Atlantic codfish, once the most important fish in the waters of southeastern New England, is on the verge of collapse. Conservation measures that have restricted fishermen throughout the Northeast over the last three decades may have only delayed an inevitable long-term death march for the cod, scientists and fisheries managers say.

While fishermen continue to harvest cod, scientists report that cod stocks are so depleted on Georges Bank there may not be enough fish left to bring about recovery, unless drastic measures are taken to protect the female population.

The collapse of the cod fishery on Georges Bank comes on the heels of a similar collapse in Newfoundland, in Canadian waters to the north and in Northern Europe. Fisheries managers say Georges Bank may be the last known area in the North Atlantic where they can save the cod, and where commercial fishermen are still allowed to harvest.

"Cod for us is the poster child of everything wrong with fisheries management in New England," declared Priscilla Brooks, director of the marine conservation program with the Conservation Law Foundation, a regional environmental advocacy organization that has closely monitored the New England fishery. She said cod stocks on Georges Bank at last count were at approximately 14 per cent of what is considered a healthy population.

A huge shoal larger than the state of Massachusetts, Georges Bank lies east and southeast of the Vineyard, extending for about 200 miles off the coast of southeastern New England. The bank is a historically rich fishing ground for cod, haddock, herring, yellowtail flounder and sea scallops, among others.

Last spring a 187-foot National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research vessel, Albatross IV, traversed Georges Bank and took samples from south of Noman's Land to the eastern end of the Canadian-held portion of the bank. In more than 73 tows, scientists found few cod despite dramatic steps taken over the last two decades to curtail overfishing. Scientists aboard the Albatross found virtually no cod south of Martha's Vineyard and south of Nantucket. They found some cod in the far eastern end of Georges Bank and in a small pocket just south of Chatham, in the Great South Channel. The trip ran from March 29 through April 7 and was part of a much broader sampling of ocean waters from New Jersey to the Gulf of Maine.

"Northern cod stocks around Newfoundland to the north have collapsed, and the big question is why?" said David Pierce, deputy director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, who sits on the New England Fishery Management Council. The council oversees the management of cod and most fish stocks in Georges Bank.

There is some good news. Haddock, a cousin to cod, is in the midst of what may be a significant recovery. On its trip the Albatross harvested and examined hundreds of pounds of juvenile haddock, anywhere from a few inches long to six inches in length.

Haddock is quickly becoming the fish of choice in the market. However, there is now rising pressure from fishermen to relax regulations so that draggers may again resume the harvest of groundfish in Georges Bank. Scientists say it would be a bad idea.

Mr. Pierce said the government has placed a moratorium on landings of cod in Newfoundland, and he said he has serious concerns about the future for codfish on Georges Bank. For 15 years the juvenile cod take has been below average, a sign that the stocks are fading.

"If we continue to get no young fish then we have a looming collapse. There are now fewer adults than there used to be. If we don't see promising signs we could have looming collapse of codfish stocks," Mr. Pierce said.

Statistics gathered from the trawl survey, together with landing data help scientists make an assessment of the status of any species of fish.

Teri Frady, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said scientists are currently updating the groundfish assessments through the calendar year 2004. The results, she said, will offer fisheries managers their first snapshot of the results of management measures enacted between the fall of 2001 and December of 2004. That includes six months of fishing under the Amendment 13, a broadly drawn federal fisheries management plan to prevent overfishing. The plan includes limits on days at sea and proscribed areas for fishing.

Ms. Frady said the results of the groundfish assessment will come before the New England Fishery Management Council in September.

"Rebuilding cod is our number one fishery concern," declared Paul Howard, executive director of the council, one of eight regional councils in the country charged with resource protection.

"Cod is the stock that helped build New England and it is the stock by which our successes are measured," Mr. Howard said.

He said the problems with the cod are not only from overfishing, but also from changing environmental conditions on Georges Bank. "Water temperature on Georges Bank is three degrees above average over the last three years. We are in the southern range of cod. Cod needs cold water," Mr. Howard said. But he said overfishing is the primary reason for the decline.

Information about the assessment is expected to be released sometime later this month.

But if the spring trip on the Albatross is any barometer, the assessment will offer more bad news about the codfish.

Scientists say there does appear to be a residual population of cod on the extreme eastern end of Georges Bank, more than 150 miles to the east, and another population in a closed area where commercial draggers have not been permitted to fish. They also found cod on the Canadian side of the Hague Line.

Conservation groups are pushing to raise public awareness about the declining cod fish stocks. The Seafood Choices Alliance publishes an awareness card which lists fish that are in good environmental shape and those that are not. The Atlantic cod is listed as a fish to avoid.

Lee Crockett, the executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network in Washington, D.C., said unfortunately the public is not usually aware of a problem until it is too late. "Most people's relationship with the ocean begins at the shoreline. Some people go fishing, some dive and they have a greater appreciation. When you talk about fish populations, habitat and fish, most people don't know what you are talking about," he said, adding: "If these stocks were to be rebuilt there would be a great economic gain for everyone. How do you get there, if you have depleted stocks and fishermen who are concerned that further conservation will put them out of business. Our concern is that the political response is too often to weaken the conservation requirements."

"Martha's Vineyard should care," concluded John Pappalardo, who sits on the New England Fishery Management Council and is a policy analyst for the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association in Chatham. There are about 80 fishermen in the association.

"You used to have a cod fishery. You should be upset there are no cod there and that you don't have a fishery. You should demand that it be reestablished. The only way you can have a fishery is that you have to have a fish," he said.