A Temporary Stay Of Execution

I’ve written before–see here, and here–about the deep concerns the people of Stonington, Maine have had about impending federal regulations that would drastically affect the lobster fishing that is a crucial pillar of the local economy. Those working in the lobster trade were convinced that regulations designed to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale would make lobster fishing practically and economically impossible.

Those concerns have been deferred by recent actions by Congress and President Biden. As is often the case with Congress these days, the $1.7 trillion spending bill that was passed and then signed into law on December 29 included an array of additional provisions–including one that delays the implementation of the right whale regulations for six years. The bill also allocated $55 million to try to accomplish two tasks related to the regulations. First, some of the money will be spent to develop workable ropeless lobster fishing gear and techniques, since the right whale regulations will require an end to the traditional rope-and-buoy system that have been a foundation of Maine lobster fishing for decades. Second, the money will fund research to determine if the North Atlantic right whale is in fact found in the Gulf of Maine, and if so where and when.

An article in the Island Ad-Vantages, the local newspaper for Deer Isle, Maine, reports on the legislation and the reaction to it here. Basically, those in the lobster trade are relieved at the delay in the regulations–which they no doubt view as a kind of stay of execution of their industry–but, as the article’s apt headline states: “And now the work begins.” There are a lot of details to work out, as those involved in the lobster fishing industry need to create a process for making and responding to right whale sightings and figure out how to spend millions, including money to be allocated in future years, to create the ropeless fishing technology. That last task is a crucial one, because the concern underlying the delayed regulations is that the the endangered right whales become ensnared in the ropes that link the lobster traps on the ocean floor to the buoys on the surface. If workable ropeless technology can’t be developed, the reprieve won’t provide long-term relief.

It’s frustrating that our government can’t seem to function at a deliberate, thoughtful pace and address issues through single-focus legislation, and instead can only act through colossal, last-minute spending bills that become Christmas trees for all kinds of unrelated provisions. In this case, however, that process helped out–temporarily, at least–a beleaguered industry and local communities that are dependent on it.

The Last Days Of Lobstering?

The people of Stonington are concerned about the future of their community. They aren’t worried about an approaching nor’easter or the remnants of a tropical storm; they’ve survived many of those. Instead, they are worried about federal regulations, designed to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale, that they are afraid might sink the Maine lobster industry–the industry that supports many of the businesses and households in Stonington, which is the largest working lobster fishing community in Maine.

On August 31, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrative (NOAA) issued final regulations that will close a part of the coastal waters off Maine to lobster fishing from October to January, which is traditionally a lucrative time for those in the lobster trade. And then, by May, lobster fishermen will have to configure their lines and traps to meet other new regulations that are designed to limit the number of lines connecting buoys on the water’s surface to lobster traps on the ocean floor and to weaken the strength of the rope lines, so that any right whale that becomes entangled can break free.

That’s a source of significant disagreement between the Maine lobster industry, on one hand, and NOAA and environmentalists on the other. The Mainers say that lobster lines aren’t responsible for a shrinking whale population and that it’s been two decades since a right whale became entangled in a Maine lobster rope. NOAA says, on the other hand, that since 2017 34 right whales have died and 16 were injured by entanglements or ship strikes. NOAA also adds, however, that at least some of those whales were entangled in Canadian gear, and the Maine lobster advocates point out that the NOAA regulations of course won’t affect Canadian lobstermen while the Maine industry is being punished. The Mainers also grind their teeth when regulators say that they use survey data on “predictive density” of whales to close hundreds of square miles of waters to lobster fishing, when the lobster boat captains who are out on the water every day say the practical reality is that whales really aren’t affected.

And the lobster boat captains also note that the alternative fishing method allowed by the regulations–called “ropeless gear”–uses technology that is admittedly “not mature” and would be enormously expensive for individual lobstermen to implement. In all, the NOAA says that it expects the regulations will cost the lobster industry between $9.8 million and $20 million in the first year, and there is no federal money available to help them. That’s a lot of money for an industry where the front-line fishermen who bait and set the traps, deposit the buoys, and hope for a good catch, are primarily independent businessmen who own and man their own boats. That’s why Stonington’s assistant harbormaster, quoted in the first article linked above, says bleakly: “This will sink a lot of people.”

It’s a classic example of the push-and-pull between industry and environmentalism, except this time the “industry” being affected isn’t faceless corporations, but individual, blue-collar lobstermen, many of whom are from families that have engaged in lobster fishing, using the traditional rope-and-buoy approach, for generations. If the new regulations, which are expected to be challenged in court, stay in place, and those independent boat captains can’t afford to comply with the new requirements, it will take away a huge source of both jobs and year-round revenue that hundreds of families count on. It’s not hard to understand why the locals are concerned that the regulations will dramatically change the Stonington community.

Time To Rely On Character, Not Guidelines

The Secret Service’s response to its embarrassing Colombian prostitute scandal — like the GSA response to its infuriating Las Vegas spend-a-thon — says a lot about the bureaucratic mindset.

In an effort to prevent agents from engaging in future drunken romps with hookers, the Secret Service has tightened guidelines.  Agents working overseas now are “banned from drinking on duty, visiting ‘disreputable establishments’ and bringing foreigners into hotel rooms.”  These are viewed as “common-sense enhancements” of existing rules, and will be accompanied by more “ethics sessions” for staff.  In short, the Secret Service, like the GSA before it, is relying on more regulation and more bureaucracy to solve its problem.

Does anyone really think, however, that the wording of regulations is what caused this scandal?  Does the Secret Service really believe that the agents who got drunk in a strip club and took Colombian streetwalkers back to their hotel rooms consulted the employee guidelines before they guzzled their first shot of vodka?

The problem is not with regulations, but with people.  If the Secret Service has hired agents who thought their behavior in Colombia was acceptable, then the problem runs a lot deeper than tweaking the terms of Regulation 12.3(b)(iii).  The processes that led to the hiring of the agents failed, and the training that helped to shape their behavior also failed.  The Secret Service needs to take a comprehensive look at how it selects and schools the people who protect our President.  It needs to figure out how to identify, hire, and promote individuals with qualities like responsibility, dedication, and judgment — because the agents involved in the Colombia scandal sorely lacked those crucial qualities.

It’s time our government understood that we must put our faith in people, not regulations.  You can’t regulate reckless people into responsible people.

We’re From The Government, And We’re Here To Help You

There’s a reason most Americans think the line “We’re from the government, and we’re here to help you” is funny.  It’s because we’ve all experienced the run-around at some governmental agency, where we’ve been told to move from one line to another for inexplicable reasons or we’ve been unable to get a simple answer to a simple question.

The point is well made by a story about President Obama’s recent response to a farmer’s question at a town hall meeting in Illinois.  The farmer asked about some impending regulations about dust, runoff, and noise that he had heard about, and the President — after gently encouraging the farmer to not believe everything he heard — confidently told the farmer to “Call USDA” because they would be able to answer his questions.

An enterprising reporter took the President’s advice.  The resulting story is a classic example of governmental run-around that catalogs every call the reporter made and every non-responsive response the reporter received.  Through nine phones calls over two days, the reporter is bounced from the USDA to the Illinois Department of Agriculture to the Illinois Farm Bureau, back to the Illinois Department of Agriculture and then to various departments within that agency.  Everyone steers the reporter to someone else.

The reporter ends up at the media relations department at USDA headquarters in Washington, where he receives a statement that is a classic of both bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo and the CYA mentality found in many governmental entities:  “Secretary Vilsack continues to work closely with members of the Cabinet to help them engage with the agricultural community to ensure that we are separating fact from fiction on regulations because the administration is committed to providing greater certainty for farmers and ranchers. Because the question that was posed did not fall within USDA jurisdiction, it does not provide a fair representation of USDA’s robust efforts to get the right information to our producers throughout the country.”

This story is all-too-familiar to anyone who has had to wrestle with governmental bureaucracies.  It’s one reason why many people take no comfort in confident statements that more governmental programs and more regulations will solve our problems.  And, it leaves the ultimate issue open:  Who’s going to answer the poor farmer’s question?