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John Stoehr: A losing battle to save state lobstering

May 21, 2017 GMT

One of Ronald Reagan’s great victories was establishing for decades the boundaries between which the rest of us debate the role of government in business. Before Reagan, it was at least credible to argue that government had a legitimate place in private enterprise. Not so after Reagan. Regulation over time became a kind of shorthand for anti-business.

In reality, businesses benefit in myriad ways from regulation and government policy even when they say they don’t. It all depends on who is doing what for whom, how and why. New-car dealers benefit from laws protecting them from out-of-state competition. Hedge funders benefit from laws allowing them to claim capital gains at lower tax rates than for income. Barbers benefit from licensing laws that maintain prices by discouraging new competition.

But reality is no substitute for believing what you want to believe. This came into stark relief as I read of regulators’ attempts to increase the lobster population. The American Lobster Board settled on a goal of boosting lobster egg production by 5 percent in southern New England and Long Island Sound. The details of new restrictions will be worked out by August in cooperation with fisherman.

Twenty years ago, the lobster catch in Connecticut was 3.7 million pounds. It’s now less than 200,000. Over that time, the number of state lobstermen went from 311 to 76. Regulators say the reason is clearly climate change. Rising average ocean temperatures (above 68 degrees for long periods) have decimated the crustacean’s habitat. Lobstermen, however, appear ambivalent.

According to Hearst Connecticut Media, they say pesticides flowing into the Sound caused the die-off. At the same time, they say lobsters are bouncing back. In either case, the implications is that climate change isn’t the problem. It’s regulators. Lobstermen say more restrictions, as on the season’s length, mean more of them out of business.

It’s entirely rational to say more restrictions mean more out of business. But it’s also entirely rational to say that going out of business was going to happen anyway.

Regulators are not making average sea temperatures rise. Regulators are not forcing lobsters to migrate north, away from a warming Sound, in search of cooler waters in the Gulf of Maine. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration isn’t making things up when it says: “Warming sea surface temperatures from climate change are pushing populations of the American lobster (Homarus americanus) farther north than ever before.” That migration contributed likely to Maine’s record-breaking catch last year of more than 130 million pounds of lobster.

In other words, climate change has fundamentally changed Connecticut’s fishing industry. Lobstering may be damned if regulators act and it may be damned if they don’t.

Well, let’s rephrase. It will be damned if they don’t. Profit motive and competition being what they are, lobstermen are unlikely to regulate themselves. But if regulators act, there will at least be some lobsters to catch. Reasonable regulation might maintain supply. But without it, forget it.

But that dwindling supply may not be enough to survive. The forces of isolation gripping the globe are pushing back against free trade. While President Donald Trump is wary of forging new international trade agreements, Canada has joined the European Union, the world’s biggest importer of fresh seafood, to create the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA.

Tariffs between Canada and the 28-nation bloc are coming down in the months ahead and when they do, it will put pressure on Maine lobstermen, who saw a record catch last year, and even more pressure on Connecticut’s tiny fleet, which saw its lobster population migrate up to Maine.

The real culprit isn’t regulators. They are trying to help even if helping hurts a bit. The real culprit is climate change and nationalism. Fortunately, business folk can leverage their influence to solve one problem. As for the other, I don’t know. What I do know: Regulation isn’t anti-business.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached at johnastoehr@gmail.com.