A shrimp boat. Photographer: Mira Oberman/AFP via Getty Images
A shrimp boat. Photographer: Mira Oberman/AFP via Getty Images

There probably isn't a lament repeated more often by small-business owners than the complaint that government regulation is strangling them. Maybe there's some truth to this, and yet what sometimes goes missing is the corollary: Without regulations, some of those businesses might not survive.

The latest example comes from a New Bedford, Massachusetts, commercial fisherman who told Fox News that limits on how many fish can be hauled from U.S. coastal waters will be the ruin of the domestic industry.

"90% of the seafood consumed in the United States comes from overseas. So we do all these rules and regulations here, we tie down all our fisherman from going fishing. And the rest of the world don't (have) the same rules that we do, and they (are) taking our market share," Carlos Rafael of Carlos Seafood told Fox.

There are a couple of components to what Rafael, a foul-mouthed critic of fishery regulations, is saying that need to be untangled.

It is true that the U.S. imports a huge amount of its seafood. For the most part, though, regulations have almost nothing to do with it. Much of what is imported -- say shrimp, tilapia and salmon -- is raised on farms, and the U.S. is a major laggard in aquaculture production. (Even Egypt and Myanmar outpace the U.S., although it should be noted that fish farms come with an array of environmental headaches.) As for the rest of the imports, just because some other countries overfish their waters doesn't mean the U.S. should do the same.

As for all those rules and regulations, Rafael is referring to programs that set limits on how much of each type of marine animal can be harvested. Every commercial fisherman is entitled to catch a certain amount, but no more. These programs, known as catch share, function much like cap-and-trade regimens for carbon emissions: Those who want to emit more carbon -- or catch more fish -- can buy credits from those who are cutting their output.

What Rafael also leaves out of his critique of the regulations is that overfishing in large parts of the U.S.'s coastal waters has depleted many stocks, some to the point of collapse. We have the technology to strip the oceans of life. If we do that, what kind of future will the fishing industry have? This is why one fisheries expert, Daniel Pauly, a professor at the University of British Columbia, once said that we may be confronting "The End of Fishing."

A quick look at the 2012 annual report (the last year available) to Congress on the health of the U.S. fisheries tells the story. It is a sorry portrait of an industry that is literally eating its seed corn.

First are fisheries that are experiencing overfishing -- that is, more fish are being taken than the population's reproductive capacity can handle, meaning harvests on that scale probably are unsustainable. Then there are fishing stocks that are in worse shape and are overfished, meaning that harvests either are in jeopardy or are declining.

It's no coincidence that some of the most troubled fisheries are off the coast of New England, according to the report, with cod, haddock and flounder all subject to a double whammy -- they are suffering persistent overfishing on top of already being overfished.

Fisheries in other countries are in no better shape than those of the U.S. Earlier this week, Bloomberg Philanthropies, which administers the charitable giving of Michael Bloomberg, majority owner of Bloomberg LP, said it would spend $53 million to promote boosting fish populations in Brazil, Chile and the Philippines.

Rafael's complaint shouldn't be disregarded. No doubt, some people who once fished can no longer make a living at it, and the effect on some coastal communities has caused hardship. But the alternative is unfettered fishing that leads to seas devoid of life -- and no fishing industry to speak of.

Catch share programs are hardly cure-alls for what ails the seas. Pollution and climate change may overwhelm anything we try to do to help fishing stocks recuperate from over-harvesting. And yet, there are some signs of progress. The 2012 state of fisheries report showed that 32 fisheries had been "rebuilt," meaning that the harm from overfishing had been reversed, up from 27 fisheries the year before.

The more fisheries that make a comeback because of sensible regulation, the more work there will be for fishermen like Carlos Rafael in the future.

(James Greiff is Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)

To contact the writer of this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: cflavelle@bloomberg.net.