On April 18, the Bumble Bee Foods sardine cannery in Gouldsboro, Maine will close and 128 people will lose their jobs. That may not sound like a large number, but Gouldsboro is a small town, with a population of only 1,941 as of the 2000 census. So the jobs lost represent 6% of the town’s total population. To a community that small, that’s a stunning blow.

The jobs lost in Gouldsboro are not the fault of the financial crisis, or the continuing recession. They are the direct result of a decision made by the federal government.

Melody Kimball, a spokesperson for the San Diego-based company, confirmed the announcement Wednesday afternoon.

Kimball said reductions in the federal limit on herring is the main reason behind the company’s decision. In 2004, the federal limit was 180,000 metric tons but this year it is only 91,000 metric tons, she said. With such catch restrictions, the plant is no longer economically viable, she said.

In six years, the federal government has reduced by half the ability to harvest the fish stock that companies and individuals depend on to make a living. And the damages aren’t limited to the sardine industry. Herring is the bait fish of choice for lobster fishermen, and limiting the supply will dramatically increase the cost of a product they cannot do their jobs without. Unfortunately, this is only the latest move by the federal government that hurts lobstermen.

Last year, a new rule on lobster rope went into effect. It required lobstermen to discard the floating rope commonly used for a new, more expensive, sinking rope.

Jones said it costs him $500 to $600 a day just to go out fishing. That includes the cost of fuel, bait and wages he pays a sternman to help him at sea.

“If you can get between 500 and 700 pounds a day, you’ll do all right,” said Jones. “I haven’t had fishing like I have in the past, but I haven’t pushed as hard.”

Jones said the use of sink rope, which wears out faster than float rope, has done more than just add to the cost of fishing. It has added to his workload, too, because it has to be replaced more often.

“It’s a frig,” he said. “The bottom’s so rocky where we fish, it just pooches out. If you get one season out of [sink rope], you’re doing good.”

More expensive bait, more expensive rope…and thanks to the current administration, fuel costs are likely to go up. These are a lot of barriers to an industry that is already suffering and each of them, again, are a direct result of decisions made by the federal government.

There are very good reasons for setting limits on the herring catch each year. These rules prevent overfishing, which is vital to the continued sustainability of the industry. The herring industry brings $40 million into the Maine economy; and the lobster industry brings $300 million. Given how much the federal rules could affect the state’s economy and those who work in the industry, one would hope that those decisions are based on sound science.

One would hope.

Herring is not overfished, or subject to overfishing, but the New England Fishery Management Council’s Science and Statistical Committee has identified a troubling “retrospective pattern” in runs of a computer model used to profile the stock.

Erring on the side of caution, the committee has decided to advise reducing the maximum catch next year from 145,000 metric tons to 90,000 metric tons.

The degree of unreliability in the retrospective pattern was considered to range between 17 and 37 percent. But the committee rounded up to a 40 percent cut in the “acceptable biological catch,” a scientific calculation of the sustainable harvest level used to set the upper level of the total allowable catch.

You read that correctly. The federal government has decided that a computer model was enough to make a decision that impacts hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and the livelihood of thousands of people. Good thing those models are never wrong, huh?

The fate of the herring and lobster industries may not be the most exciting subject, but they show how seemingly small decisions made by people who work for the federal government can have destructive effects upon the lives of thousands of people.

Call it “trickle-down” regulations.

Tags: Maine