Friday, July 13, 2012

Time for a Rematch

"Oh, what a good boy am I" I was thinking a week ago yesterday. Despite the economic hardships of the lobster season, I'd got into the habit of buying bait and fuel ahead. The fuel keeps fine, since it has been in a similar form for x many million years in the ground. Herring is another matter. Herring keeps well either alive in the ocean, or heavily salted and in massive refrigerators. In a black plastic tote in the stern of my vessel in July for a week and change? The runoff had turned to a greasy brown shellac on the deck, not unlike what you'd find renovating a diner when you pull out a sink or friolater that's not been brought up to health code in several decades.

It's only $120, but I think I need to pitch what was my paid-ahead bait overboard. Why? Because our fleet has not left the harbor since last Friday. The fishermen have engaged in a tie-up to allow an oversupply of lobsters to correct itself, the price to stabilize and to permit the all-powerful dealers and processors to pull their heads back out where  the sun does shine.

If my history is correct, the last time this was done was 1957. The tie-up triggered an unusually prompt response from the federal government who, rather than examining the real cause of market distortions, instead elected to indict fishermen for Sherman Act antitrust violations. This law, designed to deal with oil monopolies and other abuses of emperors, oligarchs and the ultrawealthy was now directed at independent guys in small boats, none of whom had anything remotely like market influence. Or even a fancy cigar and top hat.

It was a misuse of the law to intimidate fishermen out of participating in their own free market. It won't happen again.

The key legal question is: Is the tie-up natural or artificial? Is it the product of advocacy and solidarity and basic free market economics, or of conspiratorial agreement to manipulate supply and force a price?

It is one of the poorer kept secrets that dealers and processors communicate regarding price in order to manage their involvement in this market. Fishermen are entitled to do the same as long as there is no coercion or contract.

It is time to undo the 50 year old misrepresentation used to intimidate fishermen out of taking an active role in their own market. The Maine Department of Marine Resources issued a memo directed exclusively at fishermen, threatening "swift enforcement" and floating the idea of antitrust indictments.

I say bring it on. Fishermen have a right to take an active role in the market that their hard work and risk make possible.

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