If there's any group of American citizens you wouldn't expect to find at the cutting edge of political reform, it's the lobster fishermen along the coast of Maine. Not only do they have a national reputation for being cranky loners--they readily accept it. Leslie Dyer, a legendary activist who tried to organize them in the 1950s, ultimately concluded it was impossible. "We fishermen in Maine are as independent as a hog on ice," he said, "and just as helpless. We're more or less set in our ways and we don't like to be dictated to." These are people who kept using wooden traps for decades after it had been proved conclusively that steel ones lasted longer. Lobstermen, a local scholar wrote just a few years ago, "in a real sense... are prisoners of individualism."

But the fact is that, at the moment, these same lobstermen are engaged in one of the country' most interesting experiments in cooperative self-government. They have created local legislative bodies that are making crucial regulatory decisions long made by bureaucrats in Washington. Some of their friends can scarcely believe it's happening. "You're taking a bunch of fishermen that work alone and asking them to get involved in a team process," says Patrice Farrey, of the Maine Lobsterman's Association. "It's a very new thing for them."

But it is happening nevertheless. And it's a story very much worth telling.

Lobster fishing is big business in Maine. More than 7,000 individuals are engaged in it, and in a good year they bring out of the water 50 million pounds of crustaceans, worth half a billion dollars--roughly 2 percent of the gross state product. So the health of the industry is central to Maine's economy.

In the past few years, things have been going well. After a declining catch in the 1970s and '80s that seemed to suggest trouble, the lobsters are plentiful again in the ocean waters off Eastport, Kittery and Casco Bay. The fishermen are making decent money.

But that's precisely the problem. Lobster fishing is an extremely easy business to enter--anybody with $50,000 in capital can acquire a boat and set of traps, and head out into the water. When the catch is as good as it is now, hundreds of newcomers are motivated to give it a try. And established fishermen start putting in larger and larger units. Pretty soon, the number of lobsters begins to dwindle, and there aren't enough of them left to support all of the families dependent on catching them.

It's not just a theoretical fear.On both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, overfishing and gradual depletion of the stock are more the rule than the exception. In recent years, it has happened with Alaskan king crab, scallops, shrimp and sea urchins, and it has begun to happen with cod, halibut and sea bass. Last year, the U.S. Commerce Department reported that 98 different species were overfished--in other words, fewer or smaller fish each year due to too much fishing. Since 1994, the federal government has spent $160 million on subsidies to those hurt by overfishing in New England, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

Experts who watch these events frequently refer to them as a classic "problem of the commons"--a situation in which the relentless pursuit of self-interest by members of a community eventually destroys the livelihood of everyone within it. The individual fisherman gets to keep everything he finds, while the costs of a depleted fishing ground are shared by all. And as the resource economist Donald R. Leal points out, you can't store fish in a silo, or just leave them in the water for next year. If you and I are competing for lobsters off Casco Bay, it's reasonably certain that whatever I don't take, you will catch and sell. So we both go all out, and pretty soon there's hardly anything left.

The federal government has the authority to intervene in cases of overfishing, and over the years, it has been willing to do so. The 1976 Magnuson Act provides for "limiting access to the fishery in order to achieve optimum yield."

In practice, the feds haven't taken any action on the Maine lobster front in recent years. But they keep making noises about it, and that's frightening to virtually everyone in the lobster business, because the federal government can do some drastic and unpleasant things when it moves in. It can set an overall limit on the catch. It can impose a quota on each individual fisherman. Or it can say that all fishing must take place during certain months of the year, and at no other time. For a group of individualistic entrepreneurs who don't like to be dictated to, that would amount to the ultimate insult.

It is for the purpose of avoiding that insult that Maine lobstermen, over the past five years, have set out to create a wholly improbable new structure of self-government. They have divided the state into seven lobster-fishing zones. Each zone contains between 8 and 14 districts. Every one of the districts has 100 licensed fishermen. And the job of each of these units is to cooperate in crafting rules that will prevent overfishing and stave off the dreaded intrusion of the federal bureaucrats.

The first thing the lobster government did was to agree that it wouldn't put a limit on fish, it would put a limit on the number of traps each fisherman could put in the water. That was a populist decision. It penalizes the big boats that were doing saturation fishing, but allows the smaller licensees to proceed pretty much as they always had. Not everybody liked it--"It continues to be a very sore subject," admits Robin Alden, the former state Marine Resources Commissioner--but within two years, lobster legislators in all seven of the zones had approved it. The state legislature had been working on the issue for three decades, and had never passed anything.

Next came new rules for entry. Any new fishermen now has to serve a two-year apprenticeship before becoming a licensed lobsterman on his own. This, too, was a controversial move--it meant that children and grandchildren of longtime lobstermen might find it more difficult to gain a foothold in the business. The legislature had tried and failed for 20 years to agree on some form of entry restriction. The lobster government won support from five of the seven zone legislatures within one year.

Critics, however, complained that the lobstermen were creating a cartel, restraining trade and protecting their own incomes as much as they were protecting the supply of fish. The lobstermen and their supporters said they didn't have much choice. "In a sense, yes," admits James Wilson, a University of Maine professor who is advising the group. "What we're talking about here is a cartel that will restrict output... If you don't do something to restore the fishery, you end up with a depleted fishery."

Whatever one might think of the individual decisions, it's hard to escape the idea that something interesting is going on here. A form of grassroots government has been created in a difficult situation, and has succeeded in making hard political choices that mainstream government has long been unable to make. And it has achieved remarkably widespread participation. In the most recent election for zone and district representatives, the turnout among licensed lobstermen was 48 percent. That was higher than the turnout among Maine voters in general for the 1998 midterm election.

Lobster government may end up having a significance beyond Maine, and beyond the fishing industry. It's not only an experiment in grassroots responsibility, it's a venture in "civic environmentalism"--the doctrine that sound environmental policy can be made just as well at the local and community level as in the corridors of the U.S. Department of the Interior or the Environmental Protection Agency.

As we all know, it's not just fishermen who find much of federal regulation on the environment to be an unacceptably blunt instrument. The same complaints come from cities stripped of highway funding by the Clean Air Act, counties hit with huge water cleanup bills under the Clean Water Act, and planners stymied by what seems to them mindlessly rigid interpretation of the Endangered Species law.

Admittedly, some of the protests come from anti-green renegades who don't care about making the air or water cleaner. But anybody who thinks that's all there is to it would be well advised to talk to some of the creators of Maine's lobster government. They want to do the right thing for the environment and posterity, and they think their ideas for how to do it are just as good as Washington's.

When the EPA was created 30 years ago, the lobstermen point out, little reliable data on the condition of the environment was available to amateurs at the local level. Now, that data is relatively easy to obtain. A fisherman in Casco Bay has access to information on the lobster bed that he wouldn't have had a generation ago. And he can blend that information with the insights of a life spent on the water- -insights that no distant government official, no matter how well intentioned, is likely to have.

The lesson of lobster government isn't that the EPA is going to disappear, or that every plant and animal in the country is about to acquire a local legislative body responsible for its future. But it does suggest a strategy for some of the local activists who are most upset with federal environmental policy: Stop grousing and start looking for ways to solve problems on a cooperative and democratic basis.

If a Maine lobsterman can do that, just about anybody can.