Groundfish landings nosedive in New Bedford as dust settles from the Codfather case

Published on
April 12, 2018

Groundfish fishing in New Bedford, Massachusetts hasn’t been the same since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s ban on a significant portion of the fishery’s fleet went into effect last November, according to reports in local media.

NOAA revoked its operational plan for 14 groundfishing vessels in November 2017 following the arrest, trial, and conviction of former New Bedford fishing magnate Carlos Rafael, who once dominated the region’s groundfishing sector when he was still at the helm of his business, Carlos Seafoods. But Rafael and his business had something to hide – Rafael was sentenced in 2017 to 46 months in prison and leveled with several penalties, including a USD 200,000 (EUR 166,000) fine and the forfeiture of four vessels and their accompanying permits, for his role in falsifying fishing quotas, bulk cash smuggling, and tax evasion over the course of several years.  

Only seven groundfishing vessels are currently operating in New Bedford in the aftermath of Rafael’s cash smuggling scheme and NOAA’s subsequent revocations, reported South Coast Today. Consequently, landings are down by 25 percent at the local BASE (Buyers and Sellers Seafood Exchange) seafood auction, which is now operating two to three times per week instead of once per day.  

“With the ban, if we’re not up and fishing by [1] May, you might as well just call (groundfishing in New Bedford) over,” BASE co-owner Richie Canastra told South Coast Today. 

Financial strain has gripped several local businesses alongside BASE in the wake of the ban, with companies such as Crystal Ice, New Bedford Ship Supply, and Southwick Marine Insurance all facing constricting economic conditions, the newspaper said.

“We’re one company. An ice company. I don’t know how many companies are involved within one fishing vessel. You have fuel. You have ice. You have gear. You have groceries. Right down to the groceries,” said Robe Hicks, the manager of Crystal Ice. “It’s so widespread it’s not even funny.” 

The groundfishing ban has cost the Port of New Bedford up to 500,000 (EUR 415,405) per day and put an estimated 80 fishermen out of work, New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell told South Coast Today in January 2018. 

A study conducted by Dan Georgiana, a professor at SMAST and a board member of Sector IX, found that in the first 30 days of the ban, the northeast region was down roughly 300 jobs, with an income loss of about USD 5.7 million (EUR 4.6 million). Taking into account retail losses, that figure jumped to USD 12 million (EUR 9.7 million), Georgiana discovered.

The initial penalties placed upon Rafael and the fisheries he was involved in were first implemented by former NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard, who has since retired. BASE’s Canastra hopes that, moving forward, the focus can be taken off of Rafael and Bullard, and honed on the hardworking people who continue to serve and support New Bedford’s beleaguered seafood industry.

“Carlos is in jail. What Carlos did is what he did," Canastra said. "A lot of people are focusing on his damage and him being who he is. But we have to take the focus off that now and take the focus off of Bullard because Bullard is retired. They always bucked heads. There was some animosity there for sure.

“But now you’ve gotta look at the people left in the business,” he added. “You can’t look at it as Carlos’s boats. You have to look at it as New Bedford’s employees, New Bedford’s citizens. It surprises me how lackadaisical NOAA has been on trying to get this back together.”

The ban on Sector IX groundfishing fleet was handed down by NOAA on 21 November, 2017. In a statement provided to New Bedford Regional Administrator Michael Pentony, the agency said the ban was established to protect “the integrity of the entire groundfish sector system.”

“We do consider the economic effects of regulatory actions; however, in this case, we took measures necessary to ensure and maintain the integrity of the entire groundfish sector system,” NOAA wrote. “We did not suspend Sector IX’s operations because Carlos Rafael broke the law; we suspended Sector IX’s operations because the sector failed to abide by the requirements and obligations of its own sector operations plan. It is inherent in the sector system that sectors be accountable for the behavior and actions of their members, and that the sectors ensure compliance with their operations plans and the regulations. Sector IX did not meet this standard.”

The agency has set a hard regulatory line in the wake of the Rafael case. In January 2018, NOAA issued a civil administrative enforcement action seeking nearly USD 1 million (EUR 831,150) in penalties against Carlos Rafael, as well as from the scallop vessel captains associated with Rafael. In the document, NOAA alleges 35 violations of the Magnuson-Stevens Act by Carlos Rafael, Carlos Seafoods, two of Carlos Rafael’s scallop vessel captains, and 28 separate business entities related to Carlos Rafael, Kate Brogan, a NOAA spokesperson, told SeafoodSource at the beginning of this year.

Ultimately, through its civil action, NOAA said it hopes to impose an additional USD 983,528 (EUR 790,583) fine on Rafael, revoke the seafood dealer permit issued to Carlos Seafood Inc., and deny all future applications for permits submitted by Rafael.

A part of NOAA's demands have Sector IX repaying the quota Rafael illegally fished and implementing a system to ensure this situation won’t reoccur, South Coast Today reported. Negotiatons of this nature haven't budged much since 55 Sector IX vessels joined Sector VII on 26 March, the final day that vessels were allowed to join sectors. Although these boats won't be able to fish, they'll be allowed an exchange quota in the move, the newspaper said.

In 2017, New Bedford was ranked as the nation’s most valuable port for the seventeenth straight year in a row; the port's landings were valued at more than USD 327 million (EUR 264 million) last year, nearly USD 130 million (EUR 105 million) more than any in other port in the country.

Photo courtesy of Destination New Bedford

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