New Bedford groundfishing ban lifted by NOAA, a “first step and welcome relief” to the region rocked by Codfather scandal

Published on
July 20, 2018

It’s been nearly eight months since the 80 or so fishermen comprising Northeast Fishery Sector IX’s groundfishing fleet were allowed to operate their vessels out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, in light of a ban levied by the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) following the conviction of Carlos “Codfather” Rafael. 

As of Thursday, 19 July, that ban has been lifted, NOAA Fisheries announced, giving the fishermen a new lease-only license to fish in the area once more. 

The agency has approved lease-only operation plans for Sector IX, and allocated 2018 quota for Sector VII. Its final rule on the matter – published and open for comment as of 20 July – ultimately “determines the quota overages that Northeast Fishery Sector IX is responsible for paying back, allocates annual catch entitlements to Northeast Fishery Sectors VII and IX for the 2018 fishing year, approves a new lease-only operations plan for Northeast Fishery Sector IX, and approves a substantive amendment to Northeast Fishery Sector VII operations plan,” according to the Federal Register. A comment period on the rule is open from 20 July until 20 August.

NOAA’s decision has been met with approval by state legislators, who look forward to seeing affected fishers back on the water, supporting the local and national economy.

“This plan allows our fishing families and business to get back to work. One man committed criminal actions and he's justifiably in jail, but a lot of innocent people and businesses paid a price for his fraud. Finally, the industry can now move forward and I will continue to do everything to help fishermen and their way of life that embodies the Massachusetts spirit," U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) in a statement.

"NOAA's actions mean that our impacted New Bedford fishermen will be able to get back in the water,” added fellow U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts). “I am glad that fishing sectors IX and VII finally have a path forward to restore the important balance between sustainable fishing and fishermen's livelihoods. I will continue to monitor this situation to ensure continued progress and a fair resolution so we can ensure that our Massachusetts fishermen and fishing-related businesses thrive.”

NOAA revoked the operational plans for Rafael’s groundfish vessels in November 2017, a move that New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said cost the Port of New Bedford up to USD 500,000 (EUR 415,405) per day. In a statement provided to New Bedford Regional Administrator Michael Pentony at the time, 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.”

In April 2018, only seven groundfishing vessels were operating in New Bedford in the aftermath of Rafael’s cash smuggling scheme, with landings down by 25 percent at the local BASE (Buyers and Sellers Seafood Exchange) seafood auction, reported local newspaper SouthCoast Today.

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 region had lost 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.

NOAA’s ruling this week comes after a tense period of discussion and encouragement from regional politicians and the impacted fishermen and seafood companies, who are all happy to see a positive, initial resolution come of the situation, according to U.S. Representative Bill Keating (D-Massachusetts). 

“It’s finally happening,” Keating said. “We’re happy. It’s something that we’ve been doing everything in our power to encourage and to affect a swift resolution.” 

Mayor Mitchell said the decision brings about the first step of relief for a beleaguered New Bedford fleet.

“NOAA’s long-awaited decision to approve sector operation plans and allow limited groundfish operations to resume is an important first step and welcome relief to many New Bedford fishing families and waterfront businesses impacted by the closures of Sectors 7 and 9,” he said. “I applaud all those industry leaders and elected officials who worked with the City and the Port Authority to constructively engage NOAA and highlight the economic consequences of the closure on innocent parties.” 

Looking ahead, Mitchell said efforts will be directed towards helping NOAA to culminate its civil administrative enforcement action taken out against Rafael in January 2018.

“Our focus now will be to advocate for the timely conclusion of the remaining civil enforcement case against Carlos Rafael and the transfer of his vessels and permits to third parties in the Port of New Bedford. Only then can we move past lease-only arrangements and return to normal groundfishing operations and management,” Mitchell said.

NOAA has set a hard regulatory line in the wake of the Rafael case. In January 2018, the agency 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 in its action 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 hadn'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 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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