GLOUCESTER, MASS. — VITO SENITI remembers days, not long ago, when netfuls of cod and haddock coated the deck of his 92-foot trawler, twitching and slapping at his ankles. To him, the bounty of the North Atlantic seemed endless.
It was not.
After 10 years of declining catches in New England, due in large part to overfishing, the Department of Commerce today officially closes the Georges Bank -- a 6,600-square-mile area off the Northeast coast that was once one of the world's most prolific fisheries.
Environmentalists see the need for a ban as another sad chapter in the history of human greed. Mr. Seniti, who makes his living on Georges Bank, calls the closure the end of the only way of life he has ever known.
''I've been a fisherman for 25 years,'' he says. ''My father was a fisherman, and his father, and his father before. What am I gonna do now, deliver pizzas?''
Seniti's lament is not unique. Up and down the coasts of North America, once-productive fishing grounds are yielding less every year.
Salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, have dwindled in recent years, as have fish stocks in Nova Scotia and the Gulf of Mexico. Florida voters last month overwhelmingly approved a measure to prohibit the use of certain types of nets in waters close to shore to help conserve fish populations there.
Although scientists agree that pollution and the depletion of wetlands play a role in the decline of stocks, they contend that a major culprit is too many boats. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates some 40 percent of the nation's most important species have been overfished.
The fishing crisis presents a slippery challenge to federal regulators, who must balance consumption and conservation so that neither the fish, nor the fisherman, vanishes.
Here in New England, fishermen brought in 605 million pounds of seafood last year, compared with 647 million in 1992, according to the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. As a group, groundfish like haddock, cod, and yellowtail flounder (much of it from Georges Bank), accounted for only 60 million pounds in 1993, a 23 percent decrease from the year before.
Despite a web of regulations on net sizes and catch limits designed to curtail fishing in New England by 50 percent, experts say the problem has worsened and it could take four to 15 years for stocks to recover. With this in mind, US Commerce Secretary Ron Brown approved the ban for Georges Bank last Friday. The earliest it could be lifted is mid-March. ''Because adequate measures have not been previously implemented, these tough measures are necessary,'' says Rollie Schitten, director of the National M arine Fisheries Association. ''We must act decisively now to have a chance of saving this valuable national resource.''
Yet New England's 20,000 fishermen see it differently. While they recognize the need to replenish stocks, most oppose the idea of a ban. They would also like to see some aid for those affected by the closure. The Commerce Department earlier this year put aside $30 million for the New England fishing industry. But no programs have been set up to specifically compensate destitute fishermen. ''Commerce's emergency actions in New England fisheries will cause social and economic chaos,'' says Angela Sanfilli po, director of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association. ''The Georges Bank groundfishery may be saved, but it will be at the expense, if not the elimination, of the industry.''
Sitting on a bar stool at the St. Peter's Club, not far from Gloucester harbor, Seniti lashes out. ''The government wants to save the fish,'' he says, ''but it doesn't want to save the fisherman.''
Only months ago, Seniti says new regulations forced him to refit his boat with larger-mesh nets designed to reduce the harvesting of ''juvenile'' fish. Today's closure, he says, comes before the results of these measures are even known.
Throughout this seafaring village of 28,000, fishermen complain that they are bearing the burden of policies written by people in federal agencies who aren't even certain what is going on beneath the seas.
''One scientist says one thing and another scientist says something else,'' scoffs fisherman Jay Spurling, while mending cables on a local pier. ''They're not even out on the water; they don't see the things we see. So few people eat fish, and the ocean is so big, I think they're making a huge mistake.''
Although no final decisions have been made on the long-term fate of Georges Bank, proposals abound. They range from a permanent ban on groundfishing in the North Atlantic to the continued closure of Georges Bank to specific bans on certain fishing gear.
Many fishermen say the solution to the depletion of groundfish stocks is for the federal government to buy the 800 active fishing boats that work New England waters.
For deep-sea skippers like Seniti, assistance can't come too soon. With four kids to feed and a mortgage to pay, he is already swimming in debt.
He just spent $43,000 on engine repairs for his boat, Virginia Gentleman. Whether he fishes or not, his monthly insurance payments are $9,000. ''If the government wants to put all the fishermen on welfare,'' he says, ''they're doing the right thing.''