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How Ted Ames Solved the Mysteries of the Sea

How Ted Ames Solved the Mysteries of the Sea
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So, Ted Ames interviews a bunch of old-time fishermen and maps the historic cod and haddock spawning grounds in New England’s coastal and offshore waters — for this, he gets a MacArthur “genius award”?

It may be hard to imagine that it takes a genius to figure out such basic biological information about where the most venerable of all of New England’s fish lay their eggs. But among the many mysteries of the sea, the biggest mystery is how little we know or remember.

Ever since New England fishermen led a successful effort to impose a 200-mile limit off our coasts and expel foreign fishing fleets 30 years ago, American fisheries biology has suffered from math envy. To manage our fisheries, regulators feed numbers such as how many fish are harvested and their growth rates into complicated mathematical models. These models then estimate the spawning stock biomass of cod, haddock, and other groundfish throughout their vast range, followed by an estimate of maximum sustainable yield. If it sounds complex and full of uncertainty, it is.

Ted Ames, in contrast, caught fish by paying attention to local details. What was the cycle of the moon or the tide or the type of bottom when he hauled back his nets full of cod and haddock? Were their bellies pale white or dark (clues as to whether they were migrating schools or localized stocks of fish)? Ted thought such ecological details, which are ignored by fisheries science and management, were vitally important to understanding a fishery.

So Ted set out to map the local spawning grounds of cod and haddock by relying on anecdotal information from retired fishermen willing to give up their secrets. His efforts were initially rejected as “unscientific.” But, slowly, it seems that what Ted discovered has the potential to turn fisheries management on its head throughout New England.

Ted found that more than half of the historic Gulf of Maine spawning grounds were not out on the offshore banks, as most had assumed, but in bays and around the Maine islands; furthermore, he found that they were located at particular depths and on particular bottom habitats.

Ted’s mapping project led directly to an act of the Maine legislature to end all commercial groundfishing in 2,900 square miles of state waters during the months of April, May, and June of each year when these species spawn — the largest single state fishing closure in history at the time. Ted led a quiet revolution that turned some, if not all, fishermen into conservationists.

Mathematical models will continue to be important fisheries management tools, but Ted has shown that we must also incorporate vital local ecological details into the system if we are to restore the legendary runs of cod and haddock off the New England coast.

Philip Conkling is director of the Island Institute in Rockland, Maine.

Updated Wednesday, November 30th, -0001

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