Lobsterman-Scientist Receives 'Genius' Grant

Maine lobsterman and scientist Ted Ames tells host Melissa Block about how he has used his biochemistry background — and a life on the ocean — to study changing fish populations and develop sustainable fisheries management practices. Ames is one of the 2005 recipients of the MacArthur grants announced Tuesday.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Around this time every year, a surprise phone call makes each of 25 people very happy. It's the season for the MacArthur grants, the so-called Genius Awards: $500,000 to each recipient. This year, one of the MacArthur fellows is Ted Ames, 66 years old, from Stonington, Maine. He's a lobsterman and a former fisherman. And when he's not on the water, he's studying threats to the fishery ecosystem in the Gulf of Maine. For Ames, his research began with his own experience fishing in the mid-'80s.

Mr. TED AMES (Recipient, MacArthur Grant): I was always a very lucky fisherman. I stumbled to the idea that fish moved in particular patterns, and I spent my early years in fishing tracking down those runs and pursuing them. And fish were so plentiful, during those years I never dropped below half a million pounds of fish. The last year I fished, I averaged 1,500 pounds a day, so we were doing about one-ninth of what I had been doing just five, six, seven years earlier.

BLOCK: So you knew there was a problem. You could see it.

Mr. AMES: There's no question. And myself, I ended up in the middle of Grand Manan Channel in the middle of the wintertime, chasing the last fish I could imagine alive.

BLOCK: Because it was so overfished?

Mr. AMES: Because we'd cleaned out everything up to that point.

BLOCK: In the description of your work from the folks at the MacArthur Foundation, they talk about you getting anecdotal information from aging fishermen. What were you asking them about, and what were they telling you to help you figure out what was going on with these fish populations?

Mr. AMES: Well, fishermen throughout that area knew that there were populations of cod that either currently spawned along the coast or used to. So our two associations prepared a list of the very best cod and haddock fishermen that they knew and we knew along the shore, some 30-plus old vessel skippers. So I went and told them that we were trying to rebuild the cod stock, and could they remember of places and times of year where they had seen ripe codfish? And they did.

BLOCK: When did you hear from the folks at the MacArthur Foundation?

Mr. AMES: It was late last week, and it was a complete surprise. I had no idea that I was an active candidate or that he award was of such a magnitude.

BLOCK: Yeah, well, not to sound totally mercenary about this, but half a million dollars is a lot of money.

Mr. AMES: It certainly is. Even over a five-year period, it's substantial. It's a delight. I have to tell you I have all of these great projects that I wanted to do, and now I've been pushing them all back on the table the last couple of days, saying, `Well, maybe I can do this one now,' and so on.

BLOCK: Well, it sounds like a great place to be.

Mr. AMES: It is. And people have asked me, `Well, what are you going to do with all of that money?' And all I can think of is that old favorite fisherman joke of mine. Old curmudgeon fisherman with a clunky old boat wins the lottery, wins a million dollars, and the reporter asks him, says, `Well, what are you going to do with all of that money?' And he sits and he thinks for a minute, and then he says, `Well, I think I'll keep on going fishing just the same as I always have. And when the money's all gone, I'll figure out some other way to keep on fishing.' So I think probably I will do much the same. I will fish less than I have, but I can tackle these projects head on and devote good quality time to them.

BLOCK: Well, Ted Ames, congratulations on your MacArthur Award, and best of luck to you.

Mr. AMES: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Ted Ames in Stonington, Maine, is a lobsterman and a fisherman and a founder of the Penobscot East Resource Center, which studies fishing patterns. He's one of the winners of this year's MacArthur Awards.

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