The boundless harvests of the sea are not so limitless anymore, researchers say.
Nearly one-fifth of the world's annual fish and shellfish harvests is caught within 200 miles of the United States coastline. Bays, estuaries and wetlands appear to be among the most imperiled habitats.
Only 15 percent of the major fish species are yielding stocks near their potential level, according to a report by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
"The 1990s will definitely be a time of reckoning in the fishing industry," said Brian J. Rothschild, a biologist at the University of Maryland. "Technically, you can stop overfishing as quickly as you can snap your fingers. But nobody is doing it."
In separate reports, by the Massachusetts task force, the Center for Marine Conservation, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, researchers recommend that the Marine Fisheries Service restrict commercial catches to allow fish stocks to recover.
"The plundering of our coastal waters has imperiled most fish species," said Amos S. Eno, director of conservation programs for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a non-profit conservation group.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, which controls and regulates 2.2 million miles of coastal waters, says it is taking steps to control fish depletion, including tougher restrictions on net sizes and quotas.
From haddock and flounder off Georges Bank in New England to Spanish mackerel off the Gulf of Mexico to striped bass off California, many fish species are threatened by overfishing and an advancing tide of pollutants and urban development on the coastline that have degraded habitats and wetlands, which fish use as spawning and migrating grounds.
At least 14 species found off coastal waters are in danger of being depleted, including Atlantic salmon, swordfish, Pacific Ocean perch, shad, California halibut, mackerel, cod, haddock and flounder, the studies found.