NOAA pulls approval of Codfather fleet’s sector
The National Marine Fisheries Service has pulled its approval of the operations plan for Northeast Fishery Sector IX, which is largely composed of 20 vessels belonging to Carlos “The Codfather” Rafael, the former fishing magnate who pleaded guilty to falsifying fish quotas in March.
All Sector IX vessels currently at sea are required to return to port immediately, but are allowed to offload and sell their catch, according to a NMFS bulletin. The vessels are permitted to use other permits, such as those for monkfish or scallops, but are forbidden from fishing for groundfish until NMFS approval of the sector’s operation plan has been restored, according to NOAA Fisheries spokesperson Jennifer Goebel.
The move is in response to past and ongoing non-compliance with the plan by the sector’s vessels, according to a letter sent from John Bullard, the regional administrator for the Greater Atlantic Fisheries Office of NMFS, to Sector IX President Virginia Martins. This non-compliance likely contributed to extensive overages of the sector’s allocation for multiple groundfish stocks over several fishing years, according to Bullard.
“NEFS 9 has failed its primary responsibility of accurately reporting and tracking its catch and has taken only minimal, insufficient steps to ensure accurate reporting and compliance with its operation,” Bullard wrote.
In his guilty plea in March, Rafael admitted to falsely reporting catch information for 13 of his vessels – all belonging to Sector IX – from 2012 through 2015. All 13 of the vessels involved in the fraud are currently enrolled in the sector for fishing year 2017, according to NMFS. Rafael served as president of Sector IX until 30 May, 2017, and his daughter, Stephanie Rafael-DeMello, has worked as sector manager since 2011. Rafael was sentenced in September to serve 46 months in prison and three years of supervised release, during which he is banned from working in the fishing industry.
Even though the sector removed Rafael as president and elected a new board of directors, it has taken “insufficient steps to ensure accurate reporting and compliance with its operations plan,” according to a rule filed 20 November by NOAA in the Federal Register.
“The likely ACE overages that occurred, possibly beginning in the 2012 fishing year, suggest that the initial allocations made to NEFS 9 at the start of this fishery year may be artificially high. As a result, the sector’s catch to date may already exceed what would have been an accurate allocation for this fishing year,” the rule stated. “Allowing the sector to proceed without an accurate accounting of known misreporting will undermine effective management of the sector program and could further undermine fishing mortality objectives of the [fishery management plan]."
Goebel told SeafoodSource NOAA was open to working with Sector IX to restore approval of its operation plan, but as a prerequisite, the sector must define what its catch overages were in previous years.
“The main purpose of the sector is to provide accountability for the catch,” Goebel said. “If a sector exceeds its catch, it’s supposed to pay it back, pound for pound. And they have not as yet accounted for previous overages – we still don’t have numbers for what overages were over previous years.”
According to the rule filed in the Federal Register, the sector has made no new proposals about any new compliance measures or provided any information about actions taken by its new enforcement committee. The sector also has not shown NOAA how the it can be assured that operators are acting in compliance with the operations plan now.
In his letter, Bullard said NMFS was willing to “expeditiously” review a new operations plan submitted by the sector, but it first must make further reforms.
“The operations plans must include elements that ensure your sector will operate within its properly allocated or acquired ACE [annual catch entitlement], how that ACE may be assigned to each vessel, and detailed information about overage penalties or other actions that will be taken when ACE is exceeded,” Bullard wrote. “This includes addressing the fraudulent catch within your sector over multiple years for multiple stocks to ensure your sector has proper ACE allocations. This may require deducting ACE overages that the sector has incurred.”