Ted Ames and the Recovery of Maine 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.
Ted would like to see a similar system put into place for groundfishing. “We need to fish smarter. We need to create a system where stewardship becomes important to the fishermen. The way to change it is to take those critical habitats in each section and make a special management zone where you put stringent rules on how, when, and where you catch fish; by doing that, you create an opportunity for the stewardship that allows for people to profit. Then it becomes meaningful.”
In his research, talking to so many old-timers about their experiences at sea, Ted spoke with Roger Beal Sr. of Jonesport, who recalled the great Machias Bay codfish run of 1942. The old fisherman told Ted about the day when he and his father hauled in endless nets filled with thousands of cod 5 feet in length. No such haul has been recorded since. The tale is poignant to any fisherman who remembers fishing in the days of plenty, but tragic to fishermen who are aware that for years, trawlers have been ruining spawning and feeding grounds by dragging heavy equipment along the bottom of the sea, breaking up all the habitat.
Ted knows from firsthand experience how seductive trawling is: “God bless it, it’s the dominant fishing technology today — dominant because it catches everything. Haul it in, dump it on your deck, and, from the pile of stuff, pick out what you want and discard the rest. It’s an incredibly comfortable, easy way to catch fish.
“But what you’re doing is cleaning out the chicken coop before the eggs hatch. And at this point, the ground rules are such that if a fisherman has access to a spawning area and he knows when the fish are there, and he knows that other people know the same thing, he has to get there first. And the race is on. The government has created a self-defeating situation. The government is responsible for this. The fishermen are not.”
Because he understands the natural world, Ted remains hopeful. “You have the potential for 30, 40, 50 million pounds of fish a year being taken from eastern Maine, and today you have squat coming in. I really believe that if you can get the system functioning again, we’ll have fish coming out the wazoo.”