"Something in our oceans has gone greviously wrong," report Kenneth Weiss and Usha Lee McFarling in a remarkable week-long multimedia series called “Altered Oceans.”

On the web, the series turns out to be a collection of impressively-arranged videos, charts, and photographs, focusing not just on the usual complaints — overfishing and mismanagement — but also on the threat of plastics to birds, "slime" to divers, and toxic algae to sea lions. The special — the web version plays almost like a documentary — has been lavishly praised by visitors to the L.A. Times message board.

But of course, if there were any doubt about the threat to our oceans, one could also pay attention to National Geographic on "dirty fishing," Nature [$] on acid level rise, the Monterey Herald on the collapse of salmon fisheries in California this year, Mother Jones on our blindness to the fate of the seas, and no doubt many other thoughtful, well-researched articles and documentaries.

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But for a ray of light amidst the gloom, consider this fact: Lobsters are thriving in the waters off Maine, despite an ever-growing and highly profitable commercial fishery.


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According to Ted Ames, a salty 67-year-old who grew up in Maine and has fished its waters for decades while also teaching science, it’s not difficult, really:

Lobster is a good example of what can happen with a fishery if you take proper care of it. By governing the way lobster is caught — no nets, no diving — you are using the most benign methods. The trap goes up and down, it isn’t dragged, it doesn’t destroy the nursery ground. You are protecting brood stock, and you’re protecting juveniles. You end up with a species managed by sound criteria and protected from bottlenecks in its life cycle. If you develop a similar strategy for other species, they could thrive, too. When the gulf [of Maine] was healthy, nothing worked very hard to get a full meal, and you could make it that way again, and you have to. Because there isn’t a fishing stock in the world that can’t be wiped out if it’s targeted by an industrial fleet.

Working with older fishermen, Ames has been reconstructing local knowledge of Maine fishing grounds. The hope is to bring back the irreplaceable cod, which has been virtually wiped out by overfishing, not to mention the hake, the haddock, the halibut, and shrimp, shark, and scallop.

For more on this fascinating story, see the Q&A with Alec Wilkinson of the New Yorker. (For Wilkinson’s first-rate story on Ames, you’ll have to actually buy the magazine.)

Ames’ argument, reduced to its fundamentals, is simple. Fishing should be a matter of scale. If we want self-sufficient fishermen, an American tradition, we have to regulate the commercial industry, which now has vessels that can harvest a million pounds of fish a day on the open seas.

Given that Ames just won a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation for his innovative work as a "historical ecologist," perhaps people will pay attention to what he is saying:

The ocean is free. All you have to do is let the fish breed and keep the fishing boats out of the nursery. It’s there year after year, as long as you take care of it.