As revisions to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management Conservation Act of 1996 make their way through Congress, debate is intensifying over how to stop overfishing off the New England shoreline.

The stakes are high: The measures now being written into the act will affect fisheries management throughout the United States for the next five years. Much of the discussion of late has centered on quotas, a flash point in New England where management measures so far have stopped short of placing inflexible limits on the amount of any given species of fish that may be taken annually.

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, the Republican chairman of the commerce committee, together with Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Democrat from Hawaii, are developing a bill to amend the act that they hope will be palatable to both Houses of Congress. A vote on the Senate version is expected in February. The House of Representatives version is still being worked on and the final act will not be completed until October 2006.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1976 - a program of conservation and fishery resource management - established the 200-mile-limit, which prohibits foreign fishing boats from plying their trade in U.S. waters. The act in particular kept foreign fleets from Georges Bank, once one of the richest fishing grounds in the world. The 20,000-square-mile bank lies due east of the Vineyard, Nantucket and Cape Cod.

In 1996, the reauthorization of the act and actions by the New England Fishery Management Council closed as much as a third of the area on Georges Bank, so that depleted fish stocks could begin to revive.

Some stocks, however, remain troubled. Cod - at one time the most important fish in the waters of southeastern New England - are on the verge of collapse, and yellowtail flounder is in serious trouble.

Consequently, as revisions to the Magnuson act work their way through Congress, environmentalists want to see lawmakers enact policies that will stop overfishing in New England.

Central to the rewriting of the act is requiring New England ground fishermen to adhere to quota-based management.

Currently in New England, fish stocks in federal waters are managed with what are called soft quotas. Rather than impose a limit on the amount of fish that may be taken - which would be a hard quota - guidelines instead place limits on how fishermen conduct their work. The law dictates, for example, how many days they can work at sea, where they can fish and the types of gear they can use.

"New England does things differently than the rest of the country. When push comes to shove, the issue squarely before the Congress is whether we will memorialize New England's approach, which has led to overfishing, or whether we will memorialize a program that is used elsewhere in the country that works better," said Roger Fleming of the Conservation Law Foundation, which is based in Boston.

While fisheries issues exist in other parts of the country, New England management is in need of the most work, agreed Lee Crockett of the Marine Fish Conservation Network. The conservation network is a Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization that examines fishing efforts around the country.

"In New England they exceed the soft quotas all the time. It is 200 per cent, sometimes 400 per cent of the goal. How can you rebuild the fishery when you don't meet the quota?" Mr. Crockett said.

Cong. Barney Frank, a Democrat for the fourth district, which includes New Bedford, told the Gazette on Wednesday that what disturbs him is the current conservation approach. "These fishermen get portrayed as the bad guys. There is no group more regulated than the fishermen. We are telling them don't work hard, don't do too much," Mr. Frank said.

Mr. Frank said environmentalists need to approach fish restoration with more sensitivity toward the protection of the fishermen.

"We are not talking about polluting the water, or fouling the air. We are talking about having enough fish. We want to make sure stocks remain," he said.

Gregory Mayhew of Chilmark fishes in federal waters from a boat out of Menemsha; his livelihood has been affected greatly the fishing restrictions. Under the current rules, he can only fish on Georges Bank 55 days a year - a small fraction of what he used to do.

"The way they are doing it now, they are putting the versatile small fishermen out of business. He is the fisherman that will jump from one fishery to another depending on the stock. When cod is being overfished, small boats don't go for cod, they go for squid or scallops. Fisheries managers are picking historical dates and citing that if you weren't fishing for cod during those dates you are finished [you will never be able to fish for cod again, even when it is restored]."

He added: "I would rather see a trip limit on the stocks based on the total allowable catch. The scientists can come up with the scenario. Forget about limited entry. Let the little guy with the small crew have a stake."

Mr. Mayhew said the laws now in place help the big players, not the small family fisherman. "This is creating inequity in the division of fishing effort. It pits one fisherman against another," Mr. Mayhew said.

Some of the measures Mr. Mayhew has offered are included in the new version of the Magnuson Act.

David Pierce of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, who sits on the New England Fishery Management Council, is opposed to hard quotas.

"I don't like it. We tried that in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We tried it and it failed. There was a tremendous amount of discard," Mr. Pierce said. Discard is a term used to describe fish that are not allowed to be caught and are therefore shoveled over the side of fishing boats.

But proponents of the hard quota think it is responsible management that has worked elsewhere, including in the Pacific and inshore coastal fisheries.

One of the safeguards built into the quota system is a requirement that in the event of overfishing, the next year's quota is reduced to reflect the overage. It makes managers accountable, Mr. Crockett said.

Mr. Frank said he supports measures in the legislation which place additional emphasis on independent science and gives fisheries managers the ability to respond to the science.

He recalled: "In the case of sea scallops, restrictions were imposed and they worked so well that sea scallops came back. The scallopers reported they were back. They came back sooner than expected." The Congressman said he wants fisheries managers to have the ability to respond quickly, especially when there is evidence of recovery.

Concluded Mr. Crockett: "Overall we think this bipartisan bill is moving in a positive direction and we look forward to continuing to work with Congress to make it even stronger."