Thursday, July 15, 2004

Are Lobsters Fish? A Question of National Security 

The Department of Homeland security is hard at work protecting Americans from the threat of mid-sized Canadian boats. From the Bangor Daily News:
Colby Drisko's boats haul bait to Vinalhaven, North Haven, Islesboro, Isle au Haut and Matinicus and return with loads of lobster, some 1.3 million pounds last year.

Not this year.

Instead, the wholesaler is fighting a legal war of words over whether he has been "transporting cargo" or working "fisheries."

U.S. officials received a tip that the Lincolnville man uses Canadian-built boats, allegedly a violation of a landmark federal law known as the Jones Act provided the boats are transporting cargo.

So Drisko and his 15 employees are out of work because the Coast Guard has been told to impound Drisko's watercraft if they are found shipping lobster to the markets he serves in Boston and New York.

As a federal official involved in the case says: "The Jones Act says that a foreign-hulled vessel cannot engage in coastwise trade. Is hauling lobster that somebody else caught 'fisheries,' or is it 'cargo'? That's the question."
The Jones Act is a 1920 piece of protectionist legislation, technically known as a cabotage law, which serves to protect US shipbuilders, shipping crews and ship owners from foreign competition. As you might expect, it also serves to drive up costs elsewhere in the economy. Now, apparently, it's also serving to focus the attentions of the Department of Homeland Security on the truly important questions.

Surprisingly, in this age of trade liberalization, cabotage laws are common across the advanced democracies. Attempts to reform cabotage laws have been made at the OECD and WTO, but the US has not signed on. Nor has anyone in the US Congress decided to work for Jones Act repeal, despite the support of cruise ship lines and the US ports in which they might call if the act were repealed.

So it looks like the Jones Act is here to stay, at least in the immediate future. In the meantime, I look forward to finding out whether, in fact, a lobster is a fish.

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