Is lobster fishing in Maine an example of democratic socialism?

Readings:

  • http://www.mainelobsterfestival.com/blog/2016/09/02/maines-rules-keep-lobster-industry-sustainable/
  • Only the section “Management of the Maine Lobster Fishery”:¬†https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19425120.2014.984086
  • https://www.pressherald.com/2011/08/14/so-you-want-to-be-a-lobsterman_2011-08-14/

 

Our topic today is lobster fishing in Maine. Fundamentally, socialism is about democracy and workers being in control of their own working conditions. Small businesses give workers control over their own working conditions because they are both the worker and the owner of the capital they use to perform their work. They make their own hours, determine how the job is done, and get to keep the profits, rather than getting everything dictated to them and getting the lowest wage their boss thinks they can get away with paying them, no matter how high the profits.

Legally, you can only harvest lobsters in Maine if you have a permit, and a permit is only allowed for a single person, and that single person is only allowed to have one boat. In practice, this means that only small businesses can possibly enter the market; large, industrial fishing corporations are forbidden. So all money derived from Maine’s lobster resources stay in local communities, and don’t get siphoned off by out-of-state shareholders. Obviously, corporations would want to maximize profits by overharvesting until populations collapsed, then leave the Maine coast in economic ruins. When the people living there are fully in charge of those businesses, this doesn’t happen; they have all the right incentives.

Maine’s lobster fishing industry is renowned for its sustainability:

First, when you’re fishing for lobsters in Maine, the only device you can use is a trap. No dragging, no diving, nothing except traps built to the necessary specifications. These specifications include slats for small lobsters, and a biodegradable hatch so the lobsters can escape safely if the trap is lost…

Additionally, Maine fisheries have instituted size limits. Naturally, juveniles are protected, but that’s not all. Lobsters, unlike humans, grow more fertile as they age, and older lobsters are bigger lobsters. Any lobsters with body shell lengths of less than three and a quarter inches or more than five inches have to go back in the water.

To further protect the population, females caught with eggs are given a v-notch on their tails. This notch doesn’t harm them, but it lets other fishers know that the specimen in question is a fertile breeder. The female then cannot be legally caught. Any female lobster who could have its v-notch obscured, like one with a damaged tail, is counted as v-notched and thrown back. Also, the Maine Lobster Seed Fund buys and returns to the ocean any lobsters that lay eggs after they land. This means that fertile females are given the highest protection to ensure the population stays high.

In Maine, if you want get into the business, you have to be taken on as an apprentice to an experienced lobster fisher. Plus, there are only so many licenses – you can’t get your own until someone else retires and frees one up. This means that new fishers are initiated into an existing sustainable tradition, and the number of fishers is limited.

Maine also has catch limits–each fisherman can only catch a set number of lobsters. This limit is set so to avoid overharvesting and the population collapsing. There is democratic input from fishermen on these regulations:

Additionally, the law created a formal comanagement system in the form of lobster management zones. Councils of fishermen elected by other license holders in the zone allow members to modify existing rules and propose new rules regarding trap limits and limited entry with a two-thirds majority vote. These proposals, if approved by the commissioner, are then transformed into state regulations by the Department of Marine Resources (DMR).

In order to foster family businesses, teenagers are allowed to purchase apprenticeship licenses at a very low costs. Apprentices must have a fully licensed fisherman on board their boat at all times, who teaches them sustainable harvesting. Frequently, apprentices are children of fishermen, keeping the family business. Otherwise, new licenses are strictly limited and you can only get a new license if another license-holder retires.

 

Questions:

  • If we value small businesses, then we should build an economy that supports small businesses. Are Maine’s lobster harvesting regulations a model that could be used elsewhere? How else could a democratic economy look?
  • One article for today was critical of Maine’s lobster regulations because it gives current fishermen too much power. Only lobster fishermen control the rules over the harvesting of this valuable resource, and everyone else is shut out of this process, including people who want to be lobster fishermen but cannot get a license. Is it right for lobster fishermen to have such a disproportionate say over lobster harvesting? What about people who can’t get a license, cannot fish due to disability, have sold their license because they are too old to work and have retired, cannot fish because they care for children or disabled relatives, or are children?