NEW BEDFORD — The sound of idling trucks and a low chatter that slips seamlessly between Portuguese and an English native only to the waterfront fills a small, well-lit office inside the sprawling, 30,000-square-foot auction house in the nation’s wealthiest  fishing port. 

It’s 9 a.m., late afternoon by a fishermen’s clock, and a large screen displays some 150,000 pounds of sea scallops landed on the port early that morning. It seems like just a set of numbers darting across a screen, but in the back of the auction that weight of scallops sit on unceremonial display in vats of ice — each pound destined for one of those idling trucks, a processing plant and, inevitably, a plate anywhere from China to Chancery Street.

Cassie Canastra signals the start of the auction, quietly taking her seat in front of a small crowd of vessel owners and center stage in the global scallop trade. She runs the largest public fish auction on the Eastern Seaboard, the Buyers and Sellers Exchange, through which she estimates about 65% of the national, half-billion dollar scallop trade is funneled, from boat to buyer.

Each day is a swift dance, seldom lasting more than an hour, with Canastra parlaying between those with scallops to sell and those with money to buy them. She maintains no less than three channels of communication at a time. Over one ear is a headset strapped with a microphone. In her other ear is an AirPod. And with her eyes she glances at the vessel owners, who lock in their sale with a subtle nod. 

“We set the price for scallops around the world,” Canastra says. “Even if they don’t go through us, they (buyers) base what they are paying a vessel on our average.” 

The daily scallop price is a barometer for those who work on the water; and the auction operating in the public sight, Canastra says, is a vital tool for guaranteeing true market value and a fair shake on each side of the deal. 

On a Tuesday in November, vessel owners gather around the screen that displays their lots. In hushed tones, they urge on the going price, ticking up rapidly in five cent increments, until reaching a certain mark that allows them to relax, leaning back in their chairs. 

“That’s a new record,” Canastra announces as the price for U10 scallops, the meatiest and most desirable of the lots, rounds out over $35 a pound. The record it beat was set only a week prior, she says. And by Wednesday, Nov. 17, the high-liner price was beat again — reaching $36 a pound. “I don’t think any owners are let down by that price,” she adds later.

But a fair market hasn’t always been guaranteed on New Bedford’s waterfront. 

For most of the 20th century, all fish landed on New Bedford’s port was moved through one centralized public auction. Operated by the fishermen’s union and the boat owners association, it was part of a fast and raucous world now only seen in black and white.

Buyers and fishermen huddled into the tight brick building on Pier 3, framed by the names of vessels scrawled onto a chalkboard along with their daily catch. “You’d see from somebody no good to a lawyer or a banker; just about anybody in the world. All smoking like you can’t imagine,” reads a panel, quoted from a former auctioneer, at the New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center. As the last lot was sold, fishermen still at sea and the community on land tuned in to WNBH (now BIG 101.3) for the fish news, which broadcast landings, prices and waterfront news. 

But in the fall of 1985, as tensions flared during a yearlong fishermen’s union strike, the seafood trade in the nation’s largest fishing port ground to a halt. The fishermen’s union believed their demands for better pay and better working conditions would be met. But the power players on the waterfront moved, seemingly overnight, to privatize the auction — working around a law, later ruled unconstitutional, that required the auction to be public.

Fishermen on strike in New Bedford in the mid-1980s. Credit: Photo provided by Spinner Publications

By 1986, the strike was broken and the New Bedford Seafood Auction, which had run since 1941, was shuttered. The sale of fish from then on took place only behind closed doors, with buyers exercising disproportionate power over fishermen and the price of their catch. 

Canastra says BASE is not an extension of the former public auction — it is a direct response to the privatization that followed in its wake. Her father, Raymond, was a scalloping captain for 13 years, but left the industry in 1989 due to frustration at the price he and his crew would receive for their catch. 

“He stopped fishing because, at the time, there was no auction,” Canastra recalls. “You would go to an unloader and they would tell you what they were going to pay for it. They would rig the scales, lowball you, tell you it was poor quality,” Canastra said. “It wasn’t a fair market.” 

Raymond took to selling his catch out of a truck. A few years later, in 1994, he decided to officially start the auction, bringing on his brother, Richard, who was formerly a potato chip salesman for Frito-Lay. “He (Raymond) was a fisherman, and knows what it takes being out there. He wanted to make it a fair market,” Canastra says. Now, through the public auction, “whatever the price is on a day for scallops is what they are worth out in the world.” 

The auction has continued to grow in tandem with the port of New Bedford, the nation’s top-earning fishing port for more than two decades, spurred on by the thriving scalloping industry and the dwindling yet persistent ground fishery. But rising to the top ranks of the global fish trade has not come without controversy. 

BASE operates on fishing Sector 7, the same sector that the infamous fishing magnate, Carlos Rafael, ran the fraudulent operation that earned him untold wealth and a 46-month sentence. Late last year, two former BASE employees alleged the Canastra brothers were complicit in Rafael’s scheme of falsifying fish records, according to affidavits filed in an ongoing lawsuit.

In 2017, BASE made a $93 million offer to purchase Rafael’s many permits and fishing vessels, which at the time they said they would sell to independent fishermen. The vessels have since been sold to Quinn Fisheries and Blue Harvest, and BASE continues to be involved in litigation to intervene in the transaction. 

For outsiders, the churnings of the port economy are as murky as the water from which the fish is hauled. But the Canastras maintain that the auction, operating as a public market, is a vital tool in the global trade — acting as the beam ensuring equal balance of power between those who catch the fish and those who buy it. 

This week, The New Bedford Light will begin publishing BASE’s numbers in our daily feature: The Daily Catch. “People in New Bedford are always curious about the auction, the prices, whether they are in the industry or not,” Canastra said. The goal of the feature is to create a bridge over Route 18 — linking the waterfront industry of the city with those on the shore. 

On Tuesday, each of the 150,000 pounds of scallops were sold in 43 minutes. The vessel owners, content with the pricing for the day, drifted into the parking lot on New Bedford’s industrial port. 

The trucks outside kicked into gear to load the haul, gyring around the auction house like shadows of the seagulls overhead. And on the water, a bleary-eyed scalloping crew offloaded their catch in heavy, plastic totes to be put on ice and sold at the auction the next day.

Email Will Sennott at wsennott@newbedfordlight.org

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