NEW BEDFORD — Blue Harvest Fisheries, the largest groundfish operation in New England, is shutting down its fish processing plant on the city’s working waterfront and laying off 64 employees effective May 26, the company announced today.
“All Blue Harvest employees who perform food processing work at this facility will be separated. This action is expected to be permanent,” the company wrote in a letter to its staff, signed by company president Chip Wilson and dated Friday, March 24.
The company is not selling its fishing vessels or permits, according to a company spokesperson. It currently holds permits for about 12% of all New England’s groundfish quota, which translates to about 46 million pounds of species like Atlantic cod, haddock and ocean perch for the current fishing year.
Blue Harvest employs or contracts about 120 workers, including processors, fishermen and managers. Only those working in the 160,000-square-foot seafood processing facility — not fishermen or managers — will lose their jobs, according to the company. The vessels will remain ported in New Bedford, he added.
“This action only impacts processing. Harvesting efforts will continue unaffected,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to the Light. “The company will continue to sell fish to buyers as it always has, in accordance with its historical practice.”
Blue Harvest employees, both processors and fishermen, were confused and frustrated by the sudden announcement.
“Everyone’s making decisions, but they’re not talking to the guys catching the fish,” said one Blue Harvest fisherman, who asked not to be identified. “I still have my job. But who knows? We’re just told to go fishing.”
Mayor Jon Mitchell said his first concern is with the workers and their families.
“My office has been in communication with Blue Harvest and has stressed the importance of the company coordinating closely with MassHire Greater New Bedford and the state Department of Labor & Workforce Development,” he said in a statement to The Light.
It’s important “that workers have access to the support services they need to be able to transition as quickly as possible to employment with other local businesses.”
The decision to shut down its New Bedford fish processing plant comes at a dissonant moment for the company.
Blue Harvest was founded in 2015 and expanded at a fast clip. At the peak of its operations, it owned 15 scallop vessels and the largest groundfish fleet in New England.
In 2020, it notably acquired 12 vessels and 27 permits from the infamous New Bedford fishing mogul Carlos Rafael. He pleaded guilty in 2017 to fraud and tax evasion related to mislabeling fish and was forced to sell his fleet.
This year, the company purchased one of the newest groundfish vessels operating in New England waters, the F/V Francis Dawn, which formerly fished out of Maine. It replaced a different Blue Harvest vessel, named the Nobska, which burned at sea in 2021.
The rapid acquisition spree was backed by Bregal Partners, a private equity firm that is a subsidiary of a holding company owned by one of the wealthiest families in the Netherlands — the Brenninkmiejer family.
In 2022, an investigation by The Light revealed that Blue Harvest is one company that highlights the growing influence of foreign capital and private equity in the domestic fishing industry. In October, The Light also reported that the Justice Department was probing antitrust issues in the fishing industry.
Even as Blue Harvest continued acquiring vessels, and despite the capital behind those acquisitions, the company has shown signs of struggling financially.
In 2019, Blue Harvest sold the facility it is now shutting down to an Arizona-based real estate firm, Store Capital, for $20.5 million. It has since operated the facility through a sale and leaseback arrangement.
This year, the company finished selling off all 15 vessels in its scallop fleet, effectively exiting the lucrative market that lured its investors into the fishing industry in the first place. That came as the price of scallops has dropped substantially since reaching a peak last year.
In a press release sent out Friday, Blue Harvest didn’t dwell on the 64 workers who will lose their jobs by the start of the summer. It said the company is working with MassHire Greater New Bedford Career Center and others to “assist affected employees.”
Instead, the company cast the announcement as a “strategy shift” aimed at upgrading and modernizing its groundfish fleet. That includes its recent acquisition of the F/V Francis Dawn, now named the Nobska, and its plans to build two more vessels with a similar design.
“We believe that this change will provide a long-term benefit to the fishery, as it will allow us to focus on expanding the quality and capacity of our fleet,” the company wrote in its press release. “We are focused both on investing in a modern groundfish fleet and developing the next generation of fishermen to take that fleet to sea.”
Email reporter Will Sennott at firstname.lastname@example.org.