GLOUCESTER, Mass. -- Boat captain Salvatore Napoli fondly recalls how, just a decade ago, he and his fishing mates would chug out to the ocean and, in a week, net up to 40 tons of cod, haddock, flounder and other bottom-dwelling fish.
Last week, after 10 days at sea, he returned with only a quarter of that haul.
"Today, we don't bring in much fish," sighed Mr. Napoli, 38, a native of Sicily who has been fishing off the New England coast for 18 years and still speaks with a heavy accent.
All around him, orange-suited laborers were hurriedly unloading the 75-foot-long boat and packing piles of fresh, glistening fish into ice-filled, gray plastic shipping containers. With such a relatively small catch, the job did not take long.
It is a scene that has become commonplace in fish-packing houses up and down New England's rocky shoreline. Beneath the deep, dark waters off the coast, the once plentiful supply of groundfish, which has sustained families of fishermen for generations, has become alarmingly low.
"The stocks have been going down the tubes," said Eleanor Dorsey, a scientist with the Conservation Law Foundation, a public interest group in Boston. "It's very serious."
But a radical proposal by government regulators that would rebuild the groundfish stocks by forcing fishermen to cut their days at sea by half has the region's fishing industry furious.
"I don't like it at all," fumed Mr. Napoli. "They want us to fish 10 days and stay in 10 days. And what do we do, collect unemployment?"
Ed Lima, executive director of the Cape Ann Vessels Association, which represents 24 of the 200 boats in Gloucester's fishing fleet, added that some conservation measures were necessary to improve groundfish stocks. "But I don't believe you have to put half the fleet out of business to get there," he said.
But many scientists and conservationists have little sympathy for the fishermen. They say the fishermen exploited a natural resource for years.
"Today's fishermen feel it's their fish, but they're only renting the supply for a short time," said Vaughn Anthony, chief of conservation at the federal Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass. "The management of the fish is far more important than the fishermen today. . . . We're trying to maintain the resource so it can be used in perpetuity."
No one disputes that the numbers of groundfish off New England are way down.
The supply of haddock, for instance, once a mainstay of the region's fishing industry, plummeted more than 90 percent between 1980 and 1990.
Redfish, a popular dish at trendy restaurants, has become even scarcer here. In 1942, boats off the coast of Maine landed more than 150 million pounds. In 1990, the catch totaled just 1.3 million pounds.
Whereas stocks of yellowtail flounder temporarily surged in southern New England in 1987 because of a good spawning year, by 1990 nearly all the young fish had been caught or killed.
The dramatic declines prompted two public interest groups, the Conservation Law Foundation and the Massachusetts Audubon Society, to sue the federal government in June for failing to prevent overfishing, as is required under the 1976 Magnuson Fishery Management and Conservation Act.
"There are no limits on the catch, no limits on the numbers or poundage landed in any year, and no limit on the number of fishermen," said Ms. Dorsey. "It's an absolute recipe for overfishing."
In August, the government agreed in a court settlement to develop a restoration plan by September 1992 that would reduce the harvest by half.
Under the plan, which was developed by a regional fisheries management council and is the subject of hearings, fishermen would have to cut their days at sea by 10 percent every year for five years.
Owners of large boats would be required to install electronic tracking devices so the vessels could be monitored by satellite.
The plan also would increase the mesh size on fishing nets so smaller fish could escape, set a quota for haddock catches and place a moratorium on new fishing permits.
Scientists say the plan could result in tripling the current groundfish stock, but cannot predict how long the turnaround will take. Moreover, federal and local management officials say they have little idea of the economic consequences for fishermen.
Fishing industry officials say they know -- many fishermen simply will go out of business.
"I'd give the boat to the government," said Sebastian Ciolino, 33, a short, wiry Italian who owns the Sea Lion 4, the boat that Mr. Napoli captains. "I've got a mortgage. The fishermen are going to starve. We've got our houses. They might as well take everything."
Mr. Ciolino said he started fishing in Italy after he dropped out of school after the third grade.