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Maine Fisherman Wins Genius Award

The MacArthur Foundation calls Ted Ames a genius. The Maine fisherman and scientist was recently named a MacArthur Fellow and awarded a no-strings-attached $500,000 prize.

The Foundation's so-called genius awards - granted each year to individuals who show extraordinary creativity, originality and dedication in their respective fields - are not something you can apply for.

One day a fellow simply gets a phone call with the good news.

Ted Ames says, when his phone call came, he was incredulous. "It was like wow, you could blow me away with a feather. It's wonderful. I had no idea. It just kind of jumped out of the woodwork."

Ted Ames, 66, lives on a remote island off the coast of Maine. He divides his time between trapping lobsters and scientific studies of coastal fish. Mr. Ames says that over decades of fishing, he has seen a major shift take place in the New England fishing industry. "The Gulf of Maine used to be an incredibly productive set of grounds for a whole suite of commercial fish stocks - herring, cod, haddock and suites of others," he says. "In recent years we have seen a dramatic decline in stocks all across the board."

Cod was once so dense in the Gulf of Maine t hat, according to fishing lore, it could be scooped out of the ocean in buckets. No more. A recent study finds that cod stocks have dropped 21% in the last four years, and after decades of over fishing, the fishery is now below sustainable levels.

The MacArthur Foundation saw genius in the research Ted Ames has done to address the problem.

Mr. Ames has studied historic habitats, and spawning and fishing patterns in affected areas. Onto that data he has grafted anecdotal information from older fishermen to create a map that charts the evolution of current conditions in the region.

"At the conclusion of the study we were able to identify something like 1,000 square miles (2,590 square kilometers) of historic cod and haddock spawning grounds that had, to that point, been unknown to the scientific community," he says.

"The potential for helping management create sustainable fisheries lies to a great extent with the commercial fishermen as well as with the scientists," Mr. Ames says, adding, "The combination of the two is the key."

He asserts that fishery managers must reach out to local fisher communities, scientists and government officials. He says they must work together to enact strict regulations to promote and protect spawning and nursery areas on the coastal shelf. Such a plan, Mr. Ames says, would boost the fishing economy of small communities and supply industrial operations further off shore.

"It's a win-win situation for everybody," the fisherman says. "The key is rebuilding these subpopulations of ground fish. And my papers show that most of the fish migrate away from those coastal habitats and go to other places for periods of time. But there is a core population that remains in the area 12 months a year, which means that if you protect the core population area, you are guaranteed a successful opportunity for each area to have as good a reproductive season as possible."

Ted Ames believes the same strategy can be applied to coastal species and coastal economies worldwide. Mr. Ames says the money from the MacArthur grant will help him to continue his fish studies. And, he says, when the money runs out he'll just go back to trapping lobsters.