The lobster fishery in the waters south of Cape Cod is declining, so sharply that a number of Island commercial lobstermen are wondering how they will survive in the new year.

For Wayne Iacono, 53, of Chilmark the year 2002 was the worst for lobster fishing he's ever seen. Mr. Iacono has been a commercial lobster fisherman since 1971. In those early years lobstering was considered a model for other fisheries that were in trouble. But now it is lobsters in this area that are scarce. "If it wasn't for the bay scallop, I'd be looking for a job at the A&P," he said this week.

Emmett Carroll, 58, also of Chilmark, had a similarly bad year. "I think it was very bad," he said. "The gang was salvaged by a pretty good bay scallop year. It kept them from giving up as commercial fishermen."

Consumers wouldn't know Island lobstermen are in trouble. Whenever the lobsterman don't come in with enough lobsters for local market, markets simply get lobsters from somewhere else. More and more lobsters entering the Massachusetts market come from Maine and Canada.

The numbers of lobstermen on Martha's Vineyard are in decline. Of the 1,084 lobstermen in the state, most are on the north shore. Not too many years ago, there were 22 lobstermen fishing out of Chilmark. According to state records, the number has dropped to 18. The number of lobster license holders for the whole Vineyard has fallen below 30.

The decline of lobsters and lobstermen in this area of the state is being watched carefully. William Adler, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association, said 80 per cent of his lobstermen work the waters north of Cape Cod. "They catch most of the lobsters," Mr. Adler said.

In fact, of all the lobsters landed by fishermen off the East Coast, 80 per cent are caught by Maine lobstermen, with the rest being caught from New Hampshire south to New Jersey.

It appears the decline in the lobster is advancing northward. It first hit the waters of Connecticut and now the decline encompasses Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts.

Mr. Adler said Massachusetts lobstermen used to catch 15 million pounds of lobsters a year. The most recent number is 12 million pounds.

"Last year was a bad year for the state," said Mr. Adler, referring to the landings of 2001. The numbers for 2002 could actually be up a little, but not very much.

The value of those lobsters at the dock in 2001 was put at $43,546,000.

"That was down from $50 million," Mr. Adler said of years ago.

Earlier this month the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meeting on the status of these waters drew attention to the crisis and steps will be taken in the months ahead to rectify the matter, according to Mr. Adler.

Vineyard fishermen are already taking steps protect the lobsters following state guidelines. They are changing carapace gauges and modifying their lobster gear to let undersized lobsters escape. The minimum size has been increased by fractions of an inch. There was an increase on Jan. 1, and another incremental increase is scheduled for July. The increases are intended to protect adolescent lobsters, giving them an opportunity to reproduce.

Mr. Iacono said: "We are glad about the grade increases, but it is hard. The small increments are a pain, it would be better just to jump the full amount."

The decline in lobster stocks isn't all tied to overfishing. Lobstermen are also seeing a lobster shell rot disease that has significantly hurt stocks. The Long Island and Connecticut lobster fisheries collapsed, and fisheries managers blame insecticides entering the water column in the battle against the West Nile virus in the suburbs areas of New York city.

As the lobsters decline in other areas, fishermen are forced to find new fishing places and a lot more fishermen are putting their lobster gear in the waters around the Vineyard.

Mr. Adler said: "Shell disease and warmer temperatures are clearly part of the reason." Mr. Adler wants to play down the significance of fishing effort. "The fishermen's effort didn't help but fishermen don't take the small lobsters. We are hearing there are no small lobsters out there. They should be out there, even if the keepers are not."

The value of the lobster to the state is significant, Mr. Adler said: "Lobsters are the most valuable single species fishery resource in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It has now become the most valuable single species resource in all of New England."

Mr. Iacono is concerned about his future as a commercial fisherman. "It is pretty scary what is happening around here," he said. "The State of Maine does a whole lot for the lobster fishery."

Mr. Iacono said years ago he would go lobstering in the summer, go bay scalloping in the fall and cod fishing south of the Island in the winter, then back to lobstering. "In those days it was fairly lucrative. There is nothing left. Lobstering has been carrying us barely."