Maine lawmakers have proposed a slate of bills to aid the lobster industry.
A lobster boat motors out of Portland Harbor at dawn on Sept. 15, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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On Tuesday, Maine Republicans unveiled several bills that were meant to help protect Maine’s embattled lobster industry. Interestingly, the most controversial of the bills, LD 191, sponsored by Senate Republican Leader Trey Stewart and House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, actually have bipartisan support from unlikely places. Senate President Troy Jackson, for instance, is a sponsor of the bill.

Maine’s lobster industry has been under siege from two directions, both of which are being addressed by the proposals.

The first is from the federal government. Regulations from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, meant to protect the endangered right whale, have become an existential threat to Maine’s lobstermen. The regulations tightly restrict fishing areas and mandate equipment changes that could cause major losses, and are not even currently feasible.

The second relates to the activities of environmental activists who have targeted the lobster industry, accusing it of being inhumane and not environmentally “sustainable.” This effort is what ultimately led to two influential nonprofits to “delist” Maine lobster from their sustainability certification programs. In September, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch added Maine lobster to its “red list,” which was followed up by The Marine Stewardship Council removing Maine lobster’s certification in December. This loss of certifications led to many high-volume lobster buyers, including stores like Whole Foods and Walmart, to stop selling Maine lobster.

Related to the first issue, the industry received a reprieve in the recently passed $1.7 trillion spending bill in Congress, as the state’s congressional delegation managed to negotiate the insertion of a six-year delay for the NOAA regulations. This is, of course, welcome news, but hardly an end to the problem for lobstermen.

Which brings me back to the bills introduced Tuesday.

One proposal, which is a good one, would expand state control of coastal waters, hopefully addressing some of the issues related to water access and the ability of lobstermen to fish in certain places.

Another proposal, which is also a good one, would fund the continuing (never-ending?) legal battle with the government over these regulations, which again have only been temporarily suspended.

Generally I don’t support government spending on behalf of private enterprise. That, to me, is crony government behavior and corporate welfare. When private markets are involved and companies and industries fail, in my opinion it is entirely inappropriate to step in and “bail out,” throwing money at said failing industry because people are romantically attached to it. I find the post-financial crisis rescue of the auto industry a decade and a half ago to have been wrong, for instance.

But in this case, it isn’t a failure to perform in the market. Quite the opposite, actually, because Maine’s lobster industry is growing more valuable, selling more product, and expanding its reach nearly every year. The difficulty being experienced by the industry right now is almost entirely created by government regulations that have targeted it. Given that fact, the idea that the government would fund an effort to legally fight against that is well in-bounds to me.

As to the main centerpiece bill in the fight, things get a bit more complicated.

LD 191 would seek to address the activist campaign against the industry by restricting eligibility for the state business equipment tax waiver program for any company that refused to sell Maine lobster. Thus businesses, like Whole Foods, would no longer be able to access the program.

Stewart, one of the sponsors of the bill, explained the rationale, “We shouldn’t be giving tax breaks and using Maine’s tax system to aid any organization attempting to undercut any key industry in Maine, and yet, that’s exactly what we’re doing right now,” he said.

But while I certainly respect the sentiment behind this, and am just as disgusted with the cowardly, sniveling obedience that companies like Whole Foods show to radical environmental activists, I don’t like this specific way in which we would attempt to do something about the problem.

I’ve always been very uneasy about using the tax code to either reward or punish businesses because they do something the government deems good or bad. I don’t like the government picking winners and losers, even if I personally support the sentiment behind what the government is doing. Ultimately, doing so incentivizes businesses to seek to manipulate the government in return, which is how we get the government-industry cartels we too often see.  

That said, while I don’t particularly like that specific bill, I appreciate that lawmakers are making a serious attempt to aid an industry that has been targeted without cause, and needs help.

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...