Romney’s Red Herring: Blaming Regulation For Fishing Woes That Smart Regulations Could Have Prevented

Campaigning in New Hampshire earlier this week, Mitt Romney took yet another stab at the evils of regulation — this time with a focus on fisheries.

Speaking with New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte in the seacoast city of Portsmouth, the two railed against regulations that “burden [companies] with red tape and put them out of business.”

The focus on regulation is no surprise. Even though only 0.3% of reported layoffs across the U.S. economy in 2010 were due to regulation, Republicans are applying anti-regulatory rhetoric to every subject they can think of. Stretching the argument as far as he could take it, Romney tied Obama’s health insurance plan to the woes of the east coast fishing industry:

“It’s a tough time to be in the fishing business in America,” Romney told a crowd of about 200 on the Portsmouth Commercial Fishing Pier. “Not just in that industry, but in many industries. Small business has really felt like it’s been under attack over the last several years.”

“One, of course, is the discussion to put in place Obamacare,” Romney said. “The last thing these businesses want to hear is that they’ve got a new expense they’ve got to pay.”

“Then regulation,” he added. “We heard today about fishing regulations. I’ll continue to learn more about those regulations as they affect this industry. But across America, regulators [are] just multiplying like proverbial rabbits and making it harder for enterprises to grow and to understand what their future might be.”

The ironic part of this connection is that Romney’s policies as Massachusetts’ governor laid the foundation for both Obama’s health care plan and National Ocean Policy — both of which Romney now claims are examples of government over-reach.


Romney’s push for mandatory health care as governor has been well documented. But most people don’t realize that Romney also helped create an Ocean Management Initiative to help pro-actively manage commercial, recreational and ecological needs along the Massachusetts coast. The “smart growth” plan resulted in a comprehensive policy for sustainably managing the economic and ecological interests of the ocean.

The current plan supported by the White House uses many of the same concepts developed in Massachusetts under the Romney administration.

The plan, which would develop a comprehensive, science-based strategy to align the economic and environmental priorities for our oceans, is supported by the Pew Oceans Commission (chaired by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta) and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy (appointed by former President George W. Bush).

Congressional Republicans have aggressively attacked this plan, repeating their “job-killing” mantra in an attempt to defund the program supporting the plan.

The really frustrating part of this rhetorical exercise is that regulations are being blamed for problems that smart, pro-active regulations could have prevented in the first place. For example, in his New Hampshire speech, Romney was referring to catch limits that have reduced the number of fisherman in the state.


But the reason the New England fishing industry has faced financial hardship in recent years has little to do with regulation. Regardless of what regulatory structure fishermen operate under, the New England groundfishery — which once seemed limitless — is struggling to recover from decades of overfishing. We cannot legislate or regulate fish into existence so fishermen can catch them. We can either put in place an efficient regulatory structure to pro-actively address the problem, or we can react to the problem afterward with more stringent rules.

In this case, new rules had to be put in place due to an overfishing crisis in New England. (For an overview of how and why these rules were put into place, check read the latest Center for American Progress report on the issue: The Future of America’s First Groundfishery.)

Since a new catch management system took effect in 2010, the Obama administration has supported the industry with more than $50 million in funding for monitoring, business assistance, and scientific assessments designed to minimize the economic impact of a biological reality — there simply aren’t enough fish.

Appropriate, science-based regulation is a proven way of restoring fisheries in this region. As recently as the 1990s, the scallop fishery was a disaster. The resource was drastically over-harvested, and fishing businesses were racing one other to catch the last scallop in a desperate attempt to remain solvent. Regulators developed a management scheme that put the fishery on a path to sustainability. Today the sea scallop fishery is one of the most valuable fisheries in the U.S. and has made New Bedford, Massachusetts the fishing port with the highest value of fish landings.

Mindlessly claiming that regulations “kill jobs” does little to address the actual problem: Without a solid regulatory plan in place for an industry like fishing, there may be very few jobs left to defend.

Michael Conathan, Director of Oceans Policy at the Center for American Progress, contributed to this story.