The Canastra family, owners of New Bedford’s seafood auction, closed a deal to buy out groundfish giant Blue Harvest Fisheries from bankruptcy, a move finalized Wednesday with the approval of a federal judge.
After a short bidding war, Cassie Canastra submitted the highest bid of $12 million on Monday, beating out the second-highest bid from O’Hara Corporation, which is a part owner of New Bedford-based Eastern Fisheries, by $750,000.
The sale includes “all the vessels, all the permits” that once belonged to Blue Harvest Fisheries. It includes eight vessels and 48 state and federal fishing permits, representing about 13% of all Northeast groundfish permits or about 250 million pounds of quota for the current fishing year.
The sale marks the final chapter in the saga of Blue Harvest Fisheries, which was founded in 2015 by the Dutch billionaire Brenninkmeijer family, through their Manhattan-based private equity firm. The company quickly expanded to become the single-largest groundfish company on the East Coast before declaring bankruptcy in September and liquidating its assets.
The sale also continues an era of expansion for the Canastra family.
The Canastras are already a powerful family on the New Bedford waterfront. Cassie Canastra runs the Buyers and Sellers Exchange (BASE), the port’s only public fish auction. She estimates that about 65% of the national, half-billion-dollar scallop trade is funneled through BASE. “We set the price for scallops around the world,” Cassie Canastra said in a 2021 interview with The Light.
BASE was founded in 1994 by her father and her uncle after a fishermen’s strike in 1985 led to the collapse of what was then the city’s centralized public auction. A decade of privatization followed, allowing fish buyers to squeeze fishermen on prices. Cassie Canastra said her family started BASE as a response to that privatization, ensuring there is a fair market and an equal balance of power between fishermen and buyers. She took over as the head of BASE in January.
It is unclear if the Canastras will continue to own and operate the boats out of New Bedford or if they will resell some of the vessels, breaking up the fleet. In a statement, Canastra explained that she and Charles “Butch” Payne, a vessel owner from Montauk, New York, formed the company C&P Trawlers LLC to acquire the Blue Harvest assets.
“Butch and I look forward to operating those vessels from the Port of New Bedford,” she wrote. She added that members of the Canastra family who are participants in other parts of the family business are not involved with C&P Trawlers LLC.
But in recent years, the family has been on a quest to expand its business and operate its own fishing vessels. In 2022, the Canastras teamed up with Canadian seafood giant Cooke to acquire two scallop vessels. Earlier this year, the family bought two more groundfish vessels. Each can be identified on the port by their signature shade of baby blue.
Those deals came after the Canastras attempted and failed in 2017 to buy the fleet that once belonged to Carlos Rafael. At the time, Rafael, also known as the “Codfather,” had pleaded guilty to falsifying fish records to evade federal fishing quotas. He was ultimately sentenced to four years in prison and forced to sell his fleet. Richie Canastra told WBSM in 2017 that he had reached an agreement with Rafael to buy the entire fleet for $93 million.
However, that deal fell through. Six of Rafael’s scallop vessels were sold to the Quinn family of New Bedford for $40 million, and the remaining groundfish vessels were sold to private equity-backed Blue Harvest Fisheries for $19.8 million. In an interview with The Light, Rafael said he netted about $102 million in total for the sale of his fleet.
The Canastras attempted to block the sale of the Rafael estate through a lawsuit, citing the right of first refusal rule of the groundfish sectors. It was unsuccessful. But now, the Canastras are pulling off what they first set out to do in 2017: buying the Rafael fleet — but this time at a discount.
The two scallop boats the Canastras purchased last year were part of the bundle that the Quinns bought from the Rafael estate. Many of the groundfish vessels and permits the Canastras bought from the Blue Harvest bankruptcy auction once belonged to Rafael.
In addition to the $19.8 million Blue Harvest spent to acquire the Rafael boats, the company made other acquisitions in the groundfish industry during its eight-year expansion over the New England fishing industry. That includes a boat called the Frances Dawn, renamed the Nobska by Blue Harvest, which the court estimated cost north of $7 million alone. But at the bankruptcy auction, “the music stopped at $12 million,” said a representative to the bankruptcy trustee on Wednesday.
“They got a good deal,” said Eric Hansen, president of the Fisheries Survival Fund and New Bedford representative to the New England Fishery Management Council, on Wednesday. “I’m glad to see that it appears they [the boats and permits] will be staying in New Bedford. That’s a good thing.”
Cassie Canastra has also been making deals on land. She is a partner in a deal to redevelop the State Pier in New Bedford, along with restaurateur Steve Silverstein and former port director Ed Washburn.
It is unclear if Cooke was involved with the Canastras’ acquisition of the Blue Harvest fleet on Wednesday. Industry sources said Cooke attempted to buy out Blue Harvest in May of 2023, but could not reach an agreement, leading the company to declare bankruptcy in September. Cooke did not make a bid at the bankruptcy auction this week.
Cassie Canastra seemed determined to buy the Blue Harvest estate at the auction on Monday. The initial bid started at $10.05 million, and Cassie Canastra quickly charged the bid up to $11 million. A representative for O’Hara Corporation responded by cautiously raising their bid to the minimum increase of $11.25 million. Cassie Canastra immediately jumped her bid to $12 million, shutting down any further bids.
O’Hara and Cassie Canastra were the only two bidders for the entire Blue Harvest estate. There were five other bids, including one from Ben Martens of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, who attempted to bid on parts of the estate, though the trustee decided it was in the best interest of the creditors to sell all assets together.
The price of $12 million does not cover all Blue Harvest’s debts. The banks, mainly Norwegian lender DNB, are owed over $22 million and will recover about $10 million, according to the judge. Blue Harvest also owed millions to many small businesses on the New Bedford waterfront, none of which will be made whole.
Private equity firm Bregal Partners, which owned 89.5% of Blue Harvest Fisheries, also claimed it was owed over $200 million after the bankruptcy. However, the company sold off its scallop fleet late last year for an estimated $100 million. That cash did not appear in the company’s listed assets during the bankruptcy, leading some to accuse it of asset stripping.
Mayor Jon Mitchell had urged the trustee to ensure both the boats and permits from the Blue Harvest fleet remain in New Bedford.
“The Canastra family is well-positioned to ensure that the permits are actively used. Having permits, boats and other key assets under local ownership is important to the long-term stability of the fishing industry here,” the mayor wrote in a statement to The Light. “I am grateful that the bankruptcy trustee carefully considered our argument that Blue Harvest’s permits should remain in New Bedford.”
Email fishing industry reporter Will Sennott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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