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Ted Ames and the Recovery of Maine Fisheries

Yankee Plus Dec 2015


Ted Ames and the Recovery of Maine Fisheries
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On an afternoon last fall, 66-year-old Ted Ames was working away on the computer in his office, a chockablock affair in one of the front rooms of his house, which sits up on a ledge of granite overlooking the Maine fishing village of Stonington. For long stretches over the past 45 years, he’d navigated his boats out into the big ocean from working harbors like this one, looking for fish. Since the mid-1990s, he had been spending most of his time looking for where the fish had gone. A crisis had befallen the fisheries of the eastern Gulf of Maine, an appalling situation that had rocked his life as well as the lives of countless other Maine fishermen. Quietly, over the past two decades, the cod and haddock had vanished, and the fishermen had, too. From Monhegan all the way to Grand Manan, “No one’s home,” was Ted’s succinct conclusion.

The idea that this ancient livelihood might be on the verge of extinction disturbed him greatly. Since Ted first went to sea at the age of 6 with his grandfather, a retired lighthouse keeper, he had spent the better part of his life poking up and down the Maine coast, shrimp fishing, scalloping, lobstering, groundfishing — you name it, he went for it. But in 1990, with the eastern Maine groundfisheries virtually bankrupt, Ted reluctantly sold his dragger, the Dorothy M., a 45-foot, 20-ton affair that he referred to as his “pocket battleship.” To make do, he taught school and ran a water lab. He continued to fish for lobsters, which remained plentiful, but a bad fall had left him with chronic back pain and a diminished capacity to operate a boat. Even with these personal struggles, the condition of the fisheries was what troubled him most.

Environmentalists and state and federal agencies alike agreed that the cod and haddock were gone. But arguments raged over how to bring them back. A handy solution seemed to be limiting the number of days a boat could be at sea and the number of federal permits issued (at the moment, most commerical groundfishermen are restricted to 50 days in a year) — in other words, shutting down the waters.

Ted was not only a fisherman but a scholar, having earned a master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Maine. He had studied spawning, habitat, and fishing patterns in the Gulf of Maine. In addition, he had chaired many regional and statewide fishing organizations. He hatched a plan: He’d interview as many retired fishermen as he could — the ones who had fished in the 1930s and ’40s. They knew where the fish had once been — information that might lead today’s fishermen to where the fish might return. “If we could find out where the old spawning areas were, we could restock them,” he says.

Ted picked out 28 of the best inshore cod and haddock fishermen he knew of and, throughout the mid-1990s, he interviewed “some of the most wonderful bunch of old codgers you could ever imagine.” He obtained grants to cover his expenses. Then he set out to map the information he gathered, which showed the spawning grounds identified by the old-timers and overlaid it on a map of the spawning grounds from the 1970s and ’80s. “It fit like a glove,” he says. The old inshore spawning grounds were no longer active, but the spawning grounds along the coastal shelf were the same.

Now that he had identified the historic spawning grounds, he felt that the fisheries could be recovered if only the laws could change. “The system has been broken, and the only way to get it back is to have a different type of management from what we have,” Ted says. “Boy, I’d love to see it happen. But every time I’ve made my proposals, I’ve been told where to go and how to get there in the most vivid descriptions imaginable.”

And so, as he sat there in front of his computer last fall, his hopes for changing the fate of Maine’s fishermen hanging in the balance, the phone rang. A man from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation said he was calling about a fellowship. Often referred to as “genius grants,” these fellowships are most often bestowed upon artists, writers, and scientists, and they come without warning or application. The foundation invites selected nominators to make confidential recommendations of worthy candidates, and from this pool, fellowships are awarded. At first, Ted thought this call was about someone else, for he knew many he thought deserving. But the man was not calling Ted about someone else; he was calling to tell him that the fellowship, worth $500,000, was to be awarded to him. Ted, in their view, successfully “fused the roles of fisherman and applied scientist in response to increasing threats to the fishery ecosystem.”

It was the first time the MacArthur Foundation, which has been awarding fellowships since 1981, had given a fisherman such an honor.

Six months later, over a haddock sandwich in the café in Stonington, Ted recalled, “It was right out of the blue and willy-nilly. Here I was, already at a kind of turning point in my life. Well, gosh, it blew me away.” There has been some time now for reality to settle in. For Ted, it’s back to the business of saving the fisheries.

Ted is wiry, with the green eyes and peppery, steel wool beard of a pirate. Quite often, a mischievous grin sneaks through as he tries to explain the complexities of area management, which are second nature to him.

“The combination of modern electronics with large fishing vessels has created a technology too powerful for fish stocks to withstand,” he explains.

The battle is hard fought as economics squeezes more and more young men out of what is already a tough and diminishing enterprise. Out of the remaining 1,200 to 1,300 fishing boats in New England, a mere 50 land 80 percent of the fish. These are the 250-foot, multimillion-dollar boats that haul out of New Bedford, Gloucester, Bos-ton, Portsmouth, or Portland. Under the restrictive permit codes, small boats in little harbors like Stonington don’t have a chance — the giant boats race to the gulf and drag the bottom for all the fish they can get. “Is it more appropriate to have fishermen as stewards of the resource, or should we just give it all to the biggest hog who can sweep up the most the fastest and never mind about tomorrow? We are suffering the consequences of that method right now,” Ted says.

Ted advocates an approach that will not only help the fish to recover but will also help fishermen take charge and husband the fishery on their own. “To say ‘you’re catching too many’ simply doesn’t give them a constructive course of action. Protecting local spawning habitats and nursery areas is the key.”

To formulate his method, Ted looked to the past. “What people are usually not aware of is that the lobster fishing in the 1930s was basically dead. Fishermen would go out and come back with 12, 15 lobsters. They figured out that they were basically raiding the nursery and the fish could never really reproduce. The lobstermen themselves initiated a series of management measures that were effective: protecting habitat, juveniles, brood stock. From that time on, because of these measures, the population of lobsters in Maine has gone continuously up.” Today, lobstering is the only thriving fishing industry left in the eastern Gulf of Maine.

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