Pop!Tech: Ted Ames and the recovery of Maine’s fisheries

Ted Ames is the only Maine lobsterman who’s received a MacArthur “genius grant”. Listen to him for a few minutes and the reason he’s been honored becomes very clear – he’s doing astounding work in using the knowledge of fishermen over generations to document and understand the collapse of Maine fish stocks.

Groundfish – species like cod, flounder and haddock – have seen their stock collapse three times in Maine since 1950. Twelve years ago, there were about 4,000 Maine fishermen making their money from groundfish on a few hundred vessels. None of those vessels fish for groundfish today – “we’ve all become lobstermen.” Ames explains that it isn’t an option for fishermen to stop fishing – “it’s a lifestyle.” The goal, instead, is to understand how groundfish live and breed to understand how stocks might be rebuilt.

Ames tells us that his grandfather was able to tow up 30,000 pounds of redfish in a single day in a 43 foot boat. Those sorts of stocks haven’t been seen for years – like orange roughy, those fish take 15 years to reach maturity, and it takes a long time to rebuild their stocks. “Isn’t it tragic what ignorance and a little greed could do?”

He points out that fishermen are the best resource for understanding what a healthy groundfish population looked like. His plan is to gather ecological data from when fishing was good and pool fine-scale data to figure out what populations look like now. “Fishermen know specifically where they fished, how they did, what species ended up in their nets.” By collecting this information and plotting them on maps, we can understand how fish used to spawn.

Ames’s conclusion is that the collapse of the Maine fishing stock is the product of two sub-populations of cod collapsing. He’s overlaid historic data with data from contemporary fish-tagging studies and can now identify where those missing fish were spawning. That, in turn, points to the possibility of a recovery strategy based on “area management”, closing off parts of the ocean to ground fishing to allow stocks to recover.

There’s reason to believe this can happen. In 1932, Maine’s lobster stock was completely depleted. Now that’s a $280 million a year industry, producing 60 million pounds of fish, supporting 14,000 fishermen. Groundfish is 5% of Maine’s total industry, while lobster is 76%.

How did lobster recover? Five strategies:

– protect habitat
– protect reproducing females
– protect juveniles with minimum size laws
– control the fishing effort with trap limits, licensing of boats and an apprentice program
– stewardship and area management

Oddly enough, area management is an unpopular idea with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Instead, you’ve got Ted and his fellow fishermen lobbying the US government to prevent them from fishing. If you’re interested in their battle, you can follow his work at Penobscot East. It’s really impressive work and a great demonstration that sometimes fishermen are the best stewards.

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