I just criticized the ditzy Europeans for banning the sale of undersize kiwifruit. But now as I go through accumulated emails I come across this story by my friend Quin Hillyer on undersized lobster imports. I’m afraid it’s a close contest on which set of regulators is more idiotic. But since people were actually sentenced to jail in the U.S. case, I think America wins the foolishness contest. You decide.
When the story first broke in 1999, the Mobile Register played it tongue-in-cheek. “The defendants,” wrote reporter Mike Wilson, “have proved model prisoners, detained at present at minus 8 degrees Fahrenheit.” And building, and building. Because all of the lobster, not just the tails adjudged too short, was in the wrong packaging, that bumped up the “value” of the amount in violation.
And if it were an illegal import, well, that made it “smuggling,” right? And if the importers used the money they earned to buy any goods in the United States, well, that turned the case into “money laundering.”
Suddenly, the allegation of minor civil violations became a major criminal case. Three defendants were given sentences of — get this! — eight years each. In federal prison. To enforce a foreign regulation. About undersized lobsters.
The originally named defendants were 70,787 pounds of spiny lobster tails. Less than 5 percent of them were, horror of horrors, too short — which may or may not have been a violation of Honduran sea-harvest laws.
Even worse, the dastardly tails entered Bayou La Batre, Ala. not in the required cardboard containers, but in plastic. Again, Honduran law may have been violated.
U.S. prosecutors, perceiving a dangerous conspiracy, stopped bothering the lobsters and threw their net at the lobster importers. Using something called the Lacey Act, which makes it illegal in the United States to import goods in contravention of another nation’s laws, the prosecutors began building their case.