A fishing vessel returns from a trip into New Beford Harbor as seen from the Harbor View Terrace at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Credit: David W. Oliveira / For The New Bedford Light

NEW BEDFORD — Carlos Rafael called himself a pirate. He told the men he thought were gangsters that he knew how to cheat on federal fishing regulations, making millions — tax free.

Unfortunately for him, the gangsters were federal agents. Rafael went to prison, his fishing empire was dismantled and he paid millions in fines.

But that is not a victory, according to the Conservation Law Foundation. It is, in fact, proof that the current fishing regulations don’t work.

“The most powerful way to think about what happened with Carlos Rafael is to think of him as a symptom that the system is broken and not operating properly,” said Peter Shelley, senior counsel for the Foundation.

The Foundation released a 95-page report, “Fishing for a Future,” looking at the federal regulations instituted in 2010, intended to protect the nation’s oceanic groundfish. The regulations were written by the fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The regulations became known as the sector program, with New England, primarily George’s Bank and the Gulf of Maine, operating under one set of rules.

Those rules allowed Rafael — known in New Bedford as The Codfather — to flourish. He became the largest operator on the New Bedford docks. He bought up boats and leased the quotas allowed to other fishing captains. He also established his own wholesale companies and distributors. Given that, he could catch protected species, such as cod, and list them as haddock, which had less stringent federal protections, prosecutors alleged.

He admitted to that after his arrest in 2016, an arrest that resulted in four years in prison, loss of his fishing permits and $3 million in fines.

He was allowed to sell his fleet of dozens of boats and his businesses. He got out of prison early last year a wealthy man.

“In the industry, there is a belief that there is a real failure of enforcement,” Shelley said. “Even if they caught you, the penalties are worth incurring.”

The ocean needed protection. More than a generation ago marine scientists raised alarms, contending groundfish stocks were so depleted from overfishing that they might not be able to rebound.

One option discussed was to close the fishing grounds completely. Instead, fishing captains were given quotas — limits on the amount of each species a boat could bring in.

The problem, according to the report, came with monitoring. Boat captains were expected to honestly report their catch. Some, like Carlos Rafael, did not.

Carlos Rafeal competes in the fish fillet contest in 2005 as part of the Working Waterfront Festival in New Bedford. Credit: David W. Oliveira

“In every piece of academic literature that studied fisheries around the world, full monitoring is a precondition to success,” Shelley said. In New England, the percentage of the catch monitored has been in the single digits, he added.

A good monitoring system — what is called 100 percent catch accountability — helps in two other ways, Shelley said. Boat captains will cooperate more willingly if they know everyone is playing by the same rules. Monitoring also gives scientists real time information to help them determine what is happening with the fish stocks.

In the West Coast fisheries, there is full monitoring and a better track record of enforcement, according to the Foundation report. The result has been a better rebound of threatened species and less consolidation of the region’s fishing fleet. In New England, by comparison, the species targeted for protection are still endangered and the fishing fleet is shrinking. Massachusetts lost 35 percent of its groundfishing fleet between 2010 and 2016. New Hampshire and Maine fared worse.

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Smaller harbors, such as Port Clyde, Maine, Portsmouth, New Hampshire or Point Judith in Rhode Island, no longer host groundfishing fleets, Shelley said. That loss extends onto land to the businesses that once supported those boats.

“There is no information on the specific impact of the industry on the demographics of the port,” Shelley said. “We are saying to federal regulators, you need to do a better job collecting social science data.”

The report was compiled by Shelley along with Allison Lorenc, Erica Fuller and Priscilla Brooks. It was released on Jan. 19 in the hopes, Shelley said, of getting regulators with NOAA Fisheries and members of the fishing industry to consider ways to make the program work better.

Snow surrounds boats docked at the New Bedford waterfront. Credit: Barbara Roessner / The New Bedford Light

Recommendations for the New England fishery

The Conservation Law Foundation’s “Fishing for a Future” report makes several recommendations to build resilience and profitability into the New England fishery’s future:

  • The industry should develop a shared vision for its future with specific, measurable goals and objectives for the management system.
  • The industry and managers should address outstanding quota allocation issues and revisit “excessive share” accumulation limits in the sector program.
  • National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) should develop a comprehensive, interdisciplinary, and integrated participatory science and research program with the industry and regional educational and nonprofit research organizations.
  • NMFS and the Council (New England Fisheries Management Council) should use the best available science – including the full spectrum of social sciences – supported by accurate and timely community-level data to inform management.
  • NMFS should ensure full catch accountability in the fishery from the vessels to the dealers or other wholesalers.
  • NOAA’s enforcement program should be strengthened in New England.

Source: “Fishing for a Future — Protecting the legacy of the New England groundfish fishery

“Our report really issues a challenge to the industry to set goals and objectives they can live with,” Shelley said.

But the first step is to rebuild trust in the program and the science behind it, he said. That will require fair and complete monitoring of the catch and scientific studies that lend credibility to the program.

“The most prominent comment we heard from participants in the groundfish industry is that they don’t believe the science,” Shelley said. Those fishing believe the targeted fish are more plentiful than regulators say they are, Shelley said.  

The NOAA is not prepared to comment on the report, according to Allison Ferreira, the public affairs officer for the NOAA Fisheries regional office.

“We’ll review the report once we get it and look at their recommendations,” she said.

It is clear something needs to change, Shelley said. The industry is consolidating into fewer and bigger boats, small harbors are losing jobs and the fish are still endangered.

“Unless something is done,” Shelley said, “this industry will continue in a direction almost no one wants it to go.”

Kevin O’Connor is a freelance writer and contributor to The New Bedford Light.

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