Last May, Carlos Rafael, the “Codfather” of New Bedford, Mass., was indicted by federal prosecutors on nearly 30 charges including tax evasion, bulk cash smuggling, and 25 counts of lying to federal regulators. In April of 2017, Mr. Rafael pled guilty to illegally landing and selling over 782,000 pounds of fish and smuggling money to accounts in Portugal. Before being caught in an IRS sting, Rafael was a fishing kingpin with 44 commercial permits, more than 30 vessels, and control over a large plurality of New England’s groundfish quota.
Now that Mr. Rafael has pled guilty to numerous fisheries violations, the shift in focus turns to a new question: what will become of his fishing empire? In the plea deal, 13 boats and the permits associated with those boats will be forfeited. What that willl mean is still uncertain, but the New England Fishery Management Council and NOAA regulations clearly state that if a fishing permit is vacated, its allocation will be redistributed back to the remaining permits in the fishery. The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association has advocated for those permits to be distributed as such, but we firmly believe that this action alone is not enough to make amends. Mr. Rafael must be permanently removed from the New England groundfish fishery.
Over the years, Mr. Rafael acquired many permits from other ports and states, including Maine. The majority of these permits are not a part of his plea deal, and will not be redistributed by law. Rafael has made it clear that he wants to keep these assets in his home port, and New Bedford has also expressed desire to keep the permits attached to the city, claiming that the city's entire fishing industry would suffer immensely if the permits were taken away. But to focus on the troubles of one port is to ignore the far-reaching impacts of Rafael's illegal actions on the entire region.
It is no overstatement to say that Rafael's lies have distorted fish stock assessments, allocation lease prices, and the market prices fishermen have received for their fish on the docks. The federal response to his criminal case will have far-reaching consequences for New England’s groundfish fishery. Every single one of New England’s groundfish fishermen have been negatively impacted by the many years of criminal activity documented in this case, and while the guilty plea brings some closure to this story, all fishermen must be accounted for in its final reckoning and outcome. The rest of the groundfish permits owned by Carlos Rafael should subsequently be seized by NOAA fisheries and redistributed back throughout the fleet.
The impacts of the illegal operation Mr. Rafael ran for years are numerous, and his long history of infractions demonstrate that this instance was not a one-time affair. The State of Maine has suffered devastating blows to its groundfish industry over the past two decades. Fleet consolidation, caused by permit hoarding practices like Rafael’s, has been a major contributor to the ever-shrinking number of groundfish fishermen in this state. In the early 1990s, Maine had over 300 active groundfish vessels. This past year only 52 boats participated in the fishery. The main obstacles to success in the groundfish industry, as cited by fishermen, are both a severe lack of quota and stock assessments that are out of line with what many are experiencing on the water. Taking strong and decisive action against Rafael will not solve all of the groundfish industry’s many ills, but it will make a clear statement to others in the fishery that these types of misdeeds will not be tolerated, and that accountability is important for science, management, and industry morale.
The negative impacts of one man on New England’s fishing industry have been profound, and his shadow will loom over this fishery for a long time. Right now, NOAA has an opportunity to begin the healing process. We ask NOAA to remove Rafael entirely from the fishery, distribute his permits throughout the fleet, and make a clean break from the dirty history of exploiting loopholes and defying the law. The days of the pirate fishing fleet are behind us, and it is time to build a sustainable fishery though sound science, reliable data, and accountability.