When the clam boat Atlantic Mist sank off Chincoteague, Va., 11 days ago, with two men lost, she became the latest statistic in a perilous trade where payoffs range from gold to a watery grave.

The gold is in the golden meat of surf clams, now in unusual abundance 20 miles offshore and in commercial demand for chowder and fried "strip clams."

After spectacular spawning success in 1977, so many surf clams are at or near legal size off the Delmarva Peninsula that seagoing men in pursuit of fast money are throwing caution and the law to the winter winds.

Deckhands on some of the big surf clam boats can make up to $1,000 a day or more. Captains might make twice that. "It's a gold rush syndrome," said John Bryson, executive director of the Mid-Atantic Fisheries Council, the federal panel that regulates offshore clamming in the region.

Bryson said pay is so enticing that no one obeys his agency's strict conservation rules, which include a ban on fishing more than one day a week. One clamming company, American Original, which operates 13 boats, faces about $700,000 in fines, according to a federal lawyer. "I wouldn't say there's an innocent fisherman left in the surf clam industry," Bryson said.

"Survival of the fittest is what it amounts to," said Capt. Stanley Smith, who surf-clammed out of Ocean City for 16 years before his boat sank in transit two summers ago and who remains in the trade as a boat owner and clam transporter. "If you ain't fit, get out of the business."

Atlantic Mist was the second sea-clamming boat to sink this winter. The Patty B. went down off Ocean City in December, also with two men lost. It was the Patty B.'s second time to the bottom. Neither boat is likely to be retrieved from the 100-foot waters.

The loss of vessels in the offshore winter fishery is not new. Smith can tick off the names of 18 clam boats lost off Delmarva since 1968, and he reckons that at least 21 lives have been claimed.

But two fatal sinkings in two months is unusual, and clammers say that with the financial stakes higher than ever, creating more incentive to fish in marginal weather, the accidents came as no surprise.

"Something was bound to happen," said Capt. David Quillen of Chincoteague, who narrowly avoided disaster himself last week when a steel clam dredge ripped a hole just above the waterline in his boat, Miss Eleanor. "It was just a matter of time."

"I've been clamming for 10 months," said Bob Vaughters, the engineer aboard another Chincoteague clammer, "and I've already been on three boats that sank."

While every sinking has its cause, no one is willing to point a finger at individual captains or crews. However, the consensus among clammers is that the key villain in these days of resource abundance is overloading, which makes the boats unstable, coupled with bad weather, which may capsize them.

They said the deadly combination is worsened by federal regulations designed to slow the harvest so the huge crop from the 1977 spawn, which only recently reached legal size, will sustain the industry through the mid-1990s.

The rules, written by Bryson's council and enforced by the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service, allow Delmarva's 60-odd clam boats to work just one day a week, for six hours.

But clams are so thick in the sandy bottom that in those six hours, plus the "cheating" time that many work beyond the time limit, crews can easily overload the boats.

The men say it's hard to stop when they're trying to make a week's pay in a day and hauling up as many as 500 bushels an hour, worth $9 a bushel. "Maybe it's calm out there," said Dale Brown, a veteran Ocean City captain. "They deck-load the boat fill the cargo holds, then pile clams on deck . They figure they can make it back okay. But if they hit bad weather on the way in, over they go." Clammers say the regulations are inherently dangerous because they require selection of fishing days a month in advance, with no way to predict weather. Captains are allowed a one-day layover for storms, but if they don't fish the preselected day or the following day, they lose the week. With big money to be made, they say they often end up going to sea in a storm.

But Bryson said clammers rejected six alternative management plans his agency proposed, most involving annual clam quotas for each boat, to be met whenever the captain chooses. "They don't like what they've got until you offer them something else," he said.

One reason the clammers may prefer current regulations is that they largely ignore them.

Bryson said violations "are rampant" off Delmarva, where only two fisheries service enforcement agents oversee the fleet.

"The fishermen are looking at each other and saying, 'He's cheating, why shouldn't I?' " said Bryson. "I've had people who were damned honest fishermen three years ago tell me, 'I've followed the rules, but everybody is cheating now, and I've got to cheat, too.' "

The cheating takes the form of clamming in closed areas being held aside for later harvesting; fishing extra days or beyond the designated daily hours of 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and taking clams under the legal minimum size, 5 1/4 inches. Because few are caught and punishment is mild, "The system rewards the cheaters," said Smith, who insisted that some clammers do obey the rules.

Bryson conceded that fines of up to $25,000 levied against violators often are negotiated in settlements to a small percent of face value, easing the caseload but negating the value of the fines as a deterrent.

He said clammers often are better organized than their adversaries, so they avoid detection. In New Jersey, he said, some clammers hired private investigators to tail fisheries service agents from the time they left their homes in the morning so the fishermen knew where and when to cheat safely.

But Bryson said a crackdown is under way, and the Mid-Atlantic Council is considering harsher punishments, including impounding offending boats for up to six months. "That will get their attention," he said. He said the council is considering a seventh "and hopefully final" management plan to reduce the incentive to cheat.

Meanwhile, the Delmarva clammers go to sea in wind and bitter cold, hoping their luck will hold.

Some are encouraged by the fact that three men on the Atlantic Mist survived. They swam in the bitterly cold Atlantic all night, buoyed and kept from freezing by synthetic rubber survival suits they donned just before the boat went under.

Everyone in the clamming trade has a survival suit.

"I just took mine out the other day," said Dale Brown. "I checked to make sure it was still tight. Then I. . . practiced getting in and out. It took a while at first. There's a lot of little tricks to it, but I have it down now.

"Sixteen seconds."