NOAA’s recent Codfather update leaves New Bedford reeling

Right when it seemed as if the seas were settling around New Bedford, Massachusetts and the crimes of disgraced fishing magnate Carlos “Codfather” Rafael, another wave of controversy has hit the beleagured city. 

The latest contention in New Bedford comes in the wake of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) issuance of a 51-page superseding charging document related to the agency’s civil administrative case against Rafael, initiated in January 2018.

Earlier this month, NOAA filed the new document, which called for the revocation of 17 operator permits held by Rafael’s captains and increased the civil penalties associated with the case from just under USD 1 million (USD 983,528, EUR 834,673) to more than USD 3 million (USD 3.3 million, EUR 2.79 million). The noncriminal document also upped the number of alleged fishing law violations – ranging from misreporting species to gear, scallop, and observer violations – to 88, according to The Standard Times. 

These new developments have left some stakeholders in New Bedford’s fishing industry baffled. Jim Kendall, a former fishing captain and executive director of New Bedford Seafood Consulting, told local newspaper South Coast Today that he suspects former New Bedford mayor and ex-regional administrator for NOAA John Bullard of continued involvement with the case, even though Bullard retired from his post back on 19 January.  

“I’ll tell you right now, you can print it or not, but I think John Bullard still has his thumb on the scale,” Kendall said. 

Bullard first became involved in the Rafael case during its early days, back when Rafael was criminally indicted, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced in 2017. During his tenure as NOAA’s Fisheries Greater Atlantic Regional Administrator, Bullard was responsible for imposing a groundfishing ban on Rafael-owned vessels.

Kendall’s claims are offensive to all those involved in New Bedford’s fisheries enforcement community, according to Bullard. 

“A comment like that is insulting to all the people who do very important and hard work in the enforcement arena,” Bullard told South Coast Today. “They just follow the facts and where the facts lead. The only scales are the scales of justice. Nobody’s influencing. The only thing they are following is the facts.”

Current New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell doesn’t believe that justice is being served with NOAA’s increased punishment for Rafael’s captains, however. 

“The real culprit is Carlos Rafael. To my mind, it would be overkill to go after the captains who were doing his bidding and on whose good graces their livelihood depended,” Mitchell told the newspaper. “The overall goal should be to punish Carlos Rafael but not to damage the port.”

Richie Canastra, the co-owner of the Buyers and Sellers Exchange (BASE), is similarly concerned about the future of his exchange and New Bedford’s seafood trade if Rafael’s captains are barred from their work. 

“The thing is that if you take the captains out of the picture, there is no one to run the boats,” Canastra said to South Coast Today. “If there is no one to run the boats, it’s almost like buying a boat with no engine in it.”

To Bullard, these concerns don’t deal with the real problem – that Rafael did not act alone.

“There’s a myth that Carlos Rafael is a single bad actor in an otherwise pristine operation. This is puzzling to me,” Bullard said. “Because he calls himself the ‘Codfather.’ That’s the name he gave himself. Likening himself to a mafia don. He models himself as the head of the criminal enterprise. Why anyone would think he is the only bad actor when he himself molded himself as the head of criminal enterprise just defies logic.”

“I wish every member of our enforcement branch godspeed that they root out every single criminal that dishonors the honest fishermen I know,” Bullard added.

It’s already been a long saga of attempting to isolate the root of the problem that led to Rafael’s years of criminal activity for regional enforcers. NOAA first revoked its operational plan for 14 groundfishing vessels in November 2017 following the arrest, trial, and conviction of Rafael, who once dominated the region’s groundfishing sector when he was still at the helm of his business, Carlos Seafoods. When Rafael and his business were exposed in 2017, he was sentenced 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.  

In July 2018, NOAA lifted the groundfishing ban it had placed on the 80 or so fishermen comprising Northeast Fishery Sector IX’s groundfishing fleet after eight months. The decision was met with approval by state legislators at the time, who looked 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 in July.

While active, the ban cost the Port of New Bedford up to USD 500,000 (EUR 415,405) per day, Mayor Mitchell estimated.


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