Sometimes, the planets just line up.

The spare, front-page announcement in Maine’s newspapers on Sept. 19 that Ted Ames, Stonington fisherman and researcher, had been named a MacArthur Fellow for 2005 brought back memories of just such a lineup. The experience — and the result — were both extraordinary.

Sometime in 1995, Ted Ames came to the Island Institute with a powerful idea: he would interview older fishermen in Maine and Massachusetts who had participated in the Gulf of Maine’s once-great inshore cod fishery. Their recollections — specifically, where they had encountered “ripe and running” or spawning cod in the Gulf of Maine — would allow him to map those areas, documenting where the fish had once spawned. The project was part anthropology, part marine science, part history, and looked as if it would produce fresh insights into the ways man has transformed the region’s marine ecosystem.

The idea resonated with Institute president Philip Conkling, who had long been interested in understanding what was really happening to groundfish populations and the ecosystem that had once made them so abundant. Several years earlier he had assembled a group of scientists at Harvard to consider how the Gulf of Maine really works, and the result had been a publication entitled “The System in the Sea.” That little book (I edited and wrote part of it) whetted our appetites for accessible publications that would help all of us understand what’s at stake when we manage (or mismanage) an ecosystem as big, complex and economically critical as the Gulf of Maine’s.

So when Ames walked in with his interview project, which was already well underway, Conkling immediately sensed the potential for another publication. This one would include the results of Ames’s interviews, plus a few tables and two sets of maps: one compiled by Ames through his interviews, a second consisting of maps first drawn in 1887 by G.B. Goode and then updated by W.H. Rich in 1929.

Then the planets began to line up.

During his interviews, Ames had run across what many had come to regard as a tall tale: the story of a cod “run” in 1942 in Machias Bay, where fishermen unexpectedly encountered a school of giant fish, resulting in three days’ catches totaling between 80,000 and 90,000 pounds. “I’d heard the story before,” Ames would write later, “but had always taken it with a grain of salt. The idea that a large school of giant cod could have survived in an area that had been heavily fished for hundreds of years seemed to stretch the truth a little too far.” But as things turned it the story was true, and in the course of his interviews, Ames found one of the fishermen who had participated in this bonanza: a retired Jonesport man named Roger Beal Sr.

The story was too good to pass up, and once I read Ames’s write-up, I persuaded him to let us use it in the 1995 Island Journal. We ran it with several compelling illustrations by Siri Beckman, an artist who lives on Deer Isle.

By early 1996 we were planning a publication based on Ames’s work with the requisite maps and tables. Still, I thought, it needed something more. I described it to Charlie Oldham, our designer at the time, and one of us — I don’t know which — recalled a remarkable publication from the 1960s called The Whole Earth Catalog, which had included a serialized novel that ran across the bottom of its otherwise tool-filled pages. Charlie had had some connection to Stewart Brand, the Catalog‘s creator in California; I was old enough to remember the Catalog and the unusual narrative woven through its pages.

Why not include Ames’s story of the 1942 codfish run in our new booklet, interweaving it with the science, tables, satellite images and maps in the manner of the Whole Earth Catalog? Why not? Yes!!

The planets had indeed snapped into place.

Shepherded by Ames, Conkling, Platt and Oldham, the booklet was born in the late spring of 1997. Philip found the funding and provided the introduction; Ted wrote about his methods and described the results; I did the usual editing and must have done some jiggering to make Ted’s account of the 1942 cod run fit down the sides of six pages; Charlie brought it all together with his customary design magic. It was a happy collaboration, and the resulting booklet is accessible, persuasive and easy to look at.

I know the booklet accomplished one thing in short order: it persuaded the State of Maine to close its inshore fishing grounds for a portion of each year to allow remnant populations, at least, of cod to spawn. I also know we ran out of booklets in short order.

I suspect, but I’ll never know for sure, that “Cod and Haddock Spawning Grounds in the Gulf of Maine” did something else: it played a role persuading the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to give Ted Ames half a million dollars, no strings attached, in recognition of his genius.

That’s my version of the event: four guys old enough to remember the Whole Earth Catalog teamed up in a magical collaboration. It wouldn’t have worked without Ted’s original idea, but neither would it have happened if the planets hadn’t lined up at just the right time.