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Ted Ames and the Recovery of Maine Fisheries

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.”

He considers the recovery of Maine fisheries to be within reach. An additional and sizeable contribution to the reduction in the fisheries has been the existence of the many dams on rivers fish have historically used to spawn. “Right now, the fisheries are very depressing but, jeez, they removed a dam at the mouth of the Penobscot and a couple of years after that we started seeing fingerling cod in the upper part of the bay — in areas where we had not seen cod since the 1930s. Which means there is a mechanism that will bring back these coastal stocks!”

This is what Ted Ames calls his “grand adventure” — the fishing, the research, the winning of the MacArthur grant, and now the possibility of recovering the fisheries that have fed his family’s line since the mid-1700s.

“The waters of eastern Maine could be a sport fisherman’s paradise — a tourist’s dream come true,” he says. “The economic bang for improving this system just takes my breath away. It’s so obvious, I can almost taste it. This is sitting there like a ripe plum for all of us to take advantage of, if we could just get our act together.”

The MacArthur grant is given with no strings attached. If he wanted to, Ted Ames could spend the entire sum on a mansion or take his family on a cruise around the world. When he was awarded the fellowship, he was asked what he would do with the money. “I told them, ‘I’m going to do just what the old fisherman did when he won the jackpot. I’m going to keep doing exactly what I’ve always done, and when I run out of money, I’ll figure out some other way to go fishing!'”

He laughs, an explosive burst of energy and emotion. “This MacArthur fellowship has given me a bully pulpit. I’ve rattled the cage at every corner on the same issue, which is to create a mechanism for fishermen to get smaller without paying a terrible price.” He knows he has his work cut out for him. “At the turn of the century, it was fish, fish everywhere, and today, not a fish in sight. If things go well, it ought to look once again like it did back then, but we’ll have to do a little fishing for something other than fish to get there.”

This he has done, fearlessly navigating the shoals of government red tape.

A year ago, he wondered where he was headed now that his fishing days were mostly behind him. Now he has many more possibilities.

He takes a visitor down to the Stonington docks and shows her, with a flourish, a big old derelict building, once a lobster-buying station. Teetering on the edge of the dock, it looks ready to fall into the harbor. This, he explains, may become a place where fishermen can meet with researchers and state and federal regulators, sharing information and resources; it will have archives and a museum, to ensure that the information gathered can be used in the future. And it will be a place where the young people in town can learn about the marine trades and the environment, learn how they fit together in an intricate mix and how the fisheries can be taken care of so they will still be there for future generations.

It’s not hard to share Ted’s enthusiasm; no doubt, he’s the captain of this ship. “If we take care of it, we’ll have a fishery that can be fished hard or easy and we can fish forever, and our kids and grandchildren will have it, too. That’s what I would like to see. Oh, boy, how I’d love to see that!”

Updated Wednesday, November 30th, -0001

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