In the Washington area, where the rockfish is jealously guarded as a local delicacy, Maryland's four-year moratorium on rockfishing makes eating it even more delicate a question.

"It's going to increase the price, all right," warned Glenn Glasgow of Cannon Seafood in Georgetown. "It's a big item around here, both wholesale and retail. We can buy it from other areas -- New York, the Carolinas -- but it'll probably be hard to get."

Employes at the Giant Gourmet in Rockville said that the chain has been buying the light and flavorful fish in the Carolinas for several years, but that the increased demands probably will raise their prices, too.

But over the nervous gulps of rockfish connoisseurs the applause of area wholesalers and retailers could be heard clearly.

"Just on a personal note, I'm glad they did it," said Jim McCarthy, manager of O'Donnell's Restaurant in Bethesda.

"I love rockfish myself . . . . But I think it would be a shame to let the fish run out due to the interests of the few fisherman and the seafood companies that make the money.

"I don't like the idea of them getting hurt, but the environment and longevity of the fish is more important."

At the Chevy Chase branch of The Fishery Seafood Market, Jay Garfinkle echoed, "I'm glad they did it."

"I've been cutting these big females, the ones we use for the restaurant, and finding huge roe eggs . And those are out of the bay," Garfinkle said.

Although the price of rockfish began climbing early this year -- it goes for about $5 or $6 a pound -- it has remained on the menus of some more expensive restaurants such as Duke Ziebert's or Cantina d'Italia, where the cold poached rockfish is a summer byword in Washington.

But at the smaller, family-oriented establishments, where the buyers need to be assured of regular supplies and regular prices, rockfish already is an endangered species.

McCarthy said that O'Donnell's took rockfish off the menu about four months ago, when it became scarce and more costly. At Crisfield's, the seafood capital of Silver Spring, manager John Landis said, "We haven't handled it for a while," and added, "I'd like to see the rockfish population put back."

Of course, there are still the diehard fish lovers, who refuse to be comforted by visions of future plenty. For them, there are only the lesser pleasures of monkfish and snapper and trout, sole and swordfish and flounder.

"Salmon," a Gaithersburg woman said forlornly. "That's the pink stuff, right?"