It wasn’t that long ago on Martha’s Vineyard when “Cape Cod turkey” was the talk of the waterfront this time of year. It was tied to the holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. But Cape Cod turkey didn’t have anything to do with real turkey. It was cod.

Cape Cod turkey was a stuffed large cod, delivered to the dinner table on a serving plate, and most likely landed at the dock from Menemsha, Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs or Edgartown.

But today Martha’s Vineyard fishermen no longer pursue cod in these waters. Those fishing boats plying these waters left years ago. Even the hardy local rod and reel recreational fishermen, who for sport ventured out at this time of year, aren’t going. Cod are gone.

Cape Cod turkey. — Mark Lovewell

By 1992 Newfoundland offshore cod was so overfished a moratorium was imposed. Local fishermen went into a panic. Communities that had fished for centuries faced immediate trouble. Today, more than 20 years later, the Northwest Atlantic cod are still in trouble, still fragile, and barely in recovery.

Earlier this month, federal fisheries managers and scientists, concerned about the plight of cod swimming in the Gulf of Maine, took extreme new restrictive measures to cut the fishing effort there. This will hit fishermen in that area hard, but the concern now is that the cod are so depleted that they may not be able to recover.

The sharp decline of cod is not just a story about overfishing. It remains a troubled cornerstone of a bigger story about any resource that fails to come back after it has been overexploited. But because cod has such a long history in this area and provided incomes for so many fishermen, the end of cod is especially hard to come to terms with.

Atlantic cod remains the Massachusetts state fish, and Cape Cod gets its name from a copious abundance of the fish going back to Bartholomew Gosnold. A century ago, Noman’s Land, the small island south of Aquinnah, was once a temporary seasonal home for a small makeshift shanty village called Codtown. Local fishermen set up temporary homes there. They caught the fish using a dropline, bait, hook and sinker and they easily filled their boats. Cod not only fed the mouths of Island folks, the fish were salted and shipped to the mainland in wooden boxes and by the barrel. Times have changed.

In 2005, the Vineyard Gazette came out with the story: Fisheries Managers Say Atlantic Codfish Stocks Near State of Collapse. Much of the impetus for that report was based on the Gazette’s spending more than a week on a NOAA research vessel, the Albatross IV, as it sampled the rough waters of Georges Bank. Though the vessel towed in 87 places across Georges Bank, from Noman’s to the eastern end of Georges Bank, near the Hague Line, very few cod were seen.

On that trip, I worked side by side as a volunteer with scientists and fisheries managers as they counted the fish coming aboard. We measured them and dissected some, all in an effort to gain insight into the status of the fisheries.

Make no mistake, every time we set the net astern, day or night, we shared a hope that the next tow would bring us a positive report that cod and other species were in better shape than it appeared.

For those men on deck working the big net, former commercial fishermen themselves, the growing anguish was seen and felt. I heard their stories of far better days in places like south of Noman’s Land, Georges Shoal and farther to the east, Little Georges.

Scientists told me that cod may be going the way of the heath hen and the carrier pigeon. They told me one does not need to net every last fish to make cod extinct. Rather, when a certain amount are taken the species approaches a certain irreparable low number which can tip the scale toward extinction. At some point in the decline, the resource reaches a place where it no longer has the ability to recover.

I have been out on Georges Bank several times going back to 1992 in pursuit of stories related to the declining cod. What is so striking to me is that in hindsight our American story about cod for the last two decades is about continuous loss.

Georges Bank is the size of the state of Massachusetts and it was for a long time the world’s most productive fishing ground. As we plied hundreds of miles across this huge expanse, there was then and there is now a prevailing sense that we’ve taken too much. Today, huge areas of that bank are closed to fishing in an effort to turn the bad news into good news.

And although the decision for the Gulf of Maine is a hard one and affects fishermen trying to earn a living, maybe it is time for us to give the fish a break. Maybe we should leave them alone, not just for those who would fish for them in the Gulf of Maine. Maybe we should leave the fish alone for all of us.