NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (AP) _ Most of the union boats idled during a six-week strike that had virtually closed this rich port have resumed fishing over the past week, a leading boat owner said Tuesday.

Leaders of the Seafarers International Union, which represents about 800 fisherman on strike in a dispute over how the catch should be split, could not be reached for comment on the claim by Robert Britto, head of the Seafood Producers Association.

The association represents the owners of 32 boats that normally carry a union crew, said Britto.

At least six messages were left for union leaders, who did not return the calls. A man who answered the phone at union headquarters insisted the strike was not over.

''I have no idea where the rumor started, but it's not over,'' said the man, who would not give his name.

''The heavyweight union boats left today and yesterday,'' said Ed Longo, owner of a boat supply house and a marina overlooking the harbor. ''There were at least eight I can vouch for with big stocks of $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 a trip.''

Mayor John Bullard and harbor master Paul Saunders said at least three union boats left port Tuesday.

''I guess they're starting to realize everybody has to make a living,'' said Britto. ''What the net result of it is, I haven't the slightest idea.''

The fishermen walked off the job Dec. 27, and the last negotiations were held Jan. 27.

The walkout at first tied up the port, with many of the non-union fishermen among the 2,200 fishermen based here respecting the strike. But several dozen boats put out to sea about two weeks ago, and other boats have begun using other ports.

A final offer made to fishermen Monday would increase boat owners' portion of catch proceeds from 36 percent to 40 percent aboard scallopers, and from 42 percent to 48 percent aboard draggers, said David Barnet, an attorney for the boat owners.

The contract also would have given boat owners the power to hire and fire at will, said Barnet.

The boat owners turned down a Friday offer by the fishermen to enter into binding arbitration in return for their resuming work.

Seafarers union representative Joe Piva said no further talks with the boat owners were scheduled.

It has been estimated that the work stoppage cost the city $1 million a day, but New Bedford officials say that figure is a rough one.