Legend has it that cod, haddock, perch and other North Atlantic fish were once so plentiful off the coast of New England that fisherman could almost literally scoop them from the water. Today, that bounty is almost gone due mainly to many decades of over-fishing. However, there is one fisherman in the northeastern U.S. state of Maine whose innovative research into the region's fish declines is helping both scientists and fishermen understand what makes the marine ecosystems thrive and how fish populations might be restored.
His name is Ted Ames, and on one recent warm, warm blustery morning in Stonington, a picturesque village of about 1500 souls at the tip of Deer Isle, Maine, he could be seen, gray bearded and wiry standing on the dock and looking wistfully out to sea. Once thousands of independent fishermen plied these cold waters harvesting the abundant bottom feeders known here as "groundfish," especially cod. Now only a few dozen fishermen are still in business.
Ames, who calls himself a fisherman and "seasonal researcher," has been studying "historical ground fishing ecology: primarily cod and their relationship to other critters [creatures] in the system." For nearly a quarter century, he caught cod, haddock, pollock, and flounders of various types. But then, he says "I guess we caught them all up."
The sharp decline in Maine fishing was not inevitable, and, Ted Ames believes, need not be permanent.
A half century ago, Maine's famed lobster fishery was also in trouble. But thanks to strict curbs on the size and number and type of lobsters that may be caught, and self-regulation among lobstermen, the Maine lobster industry is now healthy and is expected to remain so. Why haven't ground fishermen followed that example. Short-sightedness? Greed? Ignorance? Doubts that what worked for the lobster industry will work for them?
"All of the above," says Ames, grimacing. "The ground fishermen that have survived today are the ones who are very mobile and who are extremely efficient. Their boats were designed to be at sea for a long period of time. They have technology that is way more efficient than the reproductive capacity of the fish." The end result, he says, "is that if the fish do start to recover somewhere, they are immediately flattened. And you just have to get out of that merry-go-round [cycle]."
Like all fishermen, Ames has always had a keen interest in figuring out where the fish would be, and in keeping the fish supply abundant. But early in life, Ames also developed a scientific interest in ocean ecology and biochemistry, for which he received a master's degree as a young man. His passion has been to figure out where in the Gulf of Maine the populations of cod once bred, before their decline in the 1920s, 30s and early 40s.
In the mid-1990s, Ames came ashore and went to work as executive director of the Maine Gillnetters Association. The group called for the creation of fish hatcheries that would release "fingerlings" into the old spawning grounds. The question was: where exactly had those spawning grounds been? With high-tech computer maps of the ocean floor in hand, Ames set out to interview elderly fishermen who would recall from experience where to look. "As a result," he says, "we were able to confirm these large numbers of spawning areas. And we used several criteria: depth, historical records, proper substrate, the fact that the fish were there at the proper season to reproduce and so on."
In 2005, Ames received a MacArthur Fellowship, a so-called "genius grant" given each year by the private foundation to dozens of innovative people. The $250,000 cash award helped Ames pursue his research, combining the fishermen's ecological knowledge, his map data and the results of a cod tagging study that revealed spawning and migration routes.
"And it fit!" he said. "You have to look at it in terms of an x-y plot. You have this map, and you know where all of these points are, like a polka dot pattern. And you know where codfish are at certain polka dots at certain times of the year. So you chase around where they move sequentially to and from their spawning ground as far as you can!" This research revealed a dazzling ecological complexity, he found. "And it's just a wonderful problem to mess with!"
Fishermen and researchers have often been at odds. Many fishermen believe researchers know nothing of the real ocean. Many scientists believe fishermen have difficulty grasping the larger ecological picture. But Ames feels that his discoveries are a vindication for both camps, and could help restore and preserve a cherished New England way of life.
"Until you've had sunrises and sunsets on the water, or been caught in a bad storm, or pulled a bag of fish aboard the boat and gone out expecting to have a terrible day and had a wonderful one (or vice versa), you just can't appreciate just how fundamental it is to be able to go out and say 'I know or I believe I am good enough to be able to earn for myself and my family. And it would be a tragedy to see it disappear."
The article that sets out his research in plain English for the non-specialist: <http://www.fisheries.org/html/fisheries/F2901/F2901p10-28.pdf>
Groundbreaking Study that put Ames on the map: http://www.fisheries.org/apa_symposium05/Draft%20Proceedings.pdf