New Bedford tries to move on in wake of Codfather case, but relief won't come before summer
The New England Fishery Management Council narrowly approved a plan that could allow vessels in New Bedford, Massachusetts, U.S.A. the means to start earning an income once more, after their operations were frozen in the wake of the Carlos Rafael case.
The NEFMC voted seven to five, with five abstentions, to accept extensive changes in vessels allocated between sectors VII and IX. Vessels in sector IX have been prohibited from fishing in the wake of the Rafael case.
Dubbed the “Codfather,” Rafael is currently serving a 46-month prison sentence for his role in orchestrating a quota and tax evasion scheme out of his New Bedford-based business, Carlos Seafood.
While the council approved the new plan, NOAA still needs to finalize rulemaking on the different sectors, and does not anticipate that any of the vessels in either sector VII or IX will be allowed to start fishing until roughly mid-summer.
After the discovery of numerous violations of the Magnuson-Stevens Act by Rafael and vessels in his fleet, NOAA placed a blanket ban on all sector IX vessels. On 26 March, 55 of the 60 sector IX vessels moved to sector VII. Despite the move, Liz Sullivan of the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office was adamant that full payback of the previous quota overages was still on the table.
“As part of our discussions with sector IX, we made clear that paying back the overages was an essential part,” she said to the NEFMC. “We consider the payback of the overages an essential first step.”
Whether that payback will be left to the few vessels left in sector IX, or the permitted vessels that were a part of the sector when overages occurred, is still unknown. While regulations say that if a sector has not been disbanded any overage remains with the sector, it comes with the caveat that if that sector does not have sufficient Annual Catch Entitlement (ACE) then the individual permit holders should be held responsible. Those numbers are still being worked out.
According to Sullivan, NOAA plans to treat misreported catch in each fishing year as if it was known immediately after the fishing year, eliminating carryover of unused quota into the next season.
The move to sector VII also doesn’t completely free all the vessels. The NEFMC adopted provisions, suggested by sector VII, that any of the vessels or permits owned by Rafael must remain inactive until sold to an independent third-party. The rule changes to sector VII were substantive enough that NOAA said it will need to undergo separate rule-making.
In addition, five of the vessels formerly belonging to sector IX won’t be able to return to fishing regardless of any decision-making by NEFMC, the sector boards, or NOAA.
“My understanding is the vessels that were subject to forfeiture, even before the withdrawal of the operations plan, they were stopped from fishing by the Department of Justice,” Sullivan said. “I don’t believe anything has changed regardless of what sector they were enrolled in or what operations plan that sector has.”
Council members opposed to the decision expressed concern that the move wasn’t solving some of the problems that led to the situation in the first place.
“I understand this whole process of moving most of sector IX into a different sector to try and get them to start fishing,” Doug Grout said. “That smacks to me of something that we had a big problem with about 10 years ago, with somebody who is too big to fail.”
Grout said he’s worried that the council needs to look into correcting that issue, to ensure one bad actor in a sector can’t completely devastate the fishing in an area.
Council Member Vincent Balzano said he didn’t support the motion because he doesn’t understand the need to move all of the permits around, and objected to them all moving on the very last day they were allowed to.
“If I owned a permit in that sector [sector IX] and wasn’t responsible, I would have sought a new sector earlier than that,” he said.
But for the councilors that approved, as well as some prominent figures in the New Bedford community, the goal was to get the industry moving again as soon as they could.
“The NOAA decision has had – and continues to have – troubling economic consequence for the Port of New Bedford and our local economy,” New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said. Mitchell also serves as the chair of the New Bedford Port Authority. “It is important for all parties to keep in mind the numerous New Bedford businesses and families who have played no direct role in the operation of sector IX, but who now find themselves in severe financial distress as a result of the sector's closure.”
Since the closure, Mitchell said, New Bedford has seen significant economic impacts from a lack of groundfish landings. He added that Professor Dan Georgiana of the School of Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts, used NOAA's standard economic impact models to estimate the damage. It found roughly USD 12 million (EUR 9.7 million) in losses in the first 25 days of the closure.
That was council member Eric Reid's primary motivation for allowing the moves between sectors.
“That’s what I base my decision on, because I am not an expert and I don’t want to pretend to be an expert. My position is what’s best for the nation is to get those fish back in the market, and I think that’s what we should look at,” he said. “Freeing up the quotas that are in limbo, it seems to me the greatest need.”
Groundfish landings in New Bedford have fallen sharply after sector IX’s closure. A story in the South Coast Today earlier this month indicated that landings at the local BASE (Buyers and Sellers Seafood Exchange) have fallen 25 percent.
“With the ban, if we’re not up and fishing by  May, you might as well just call (groundfishing in New Bedford) over,” BASE co-owner Richie Canastra told South Coast Today.
However, fishing by 1 May is still looking unlikely. According to Sullivan, neither Sector IX nor Sector VII will be up and running by that date.
“We will not have determination for sectors VII and IX for 1 May,” she said.