November 22, 2017    


By Michael P. Norton

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, NOV. 22, 2017…..South Coast officials and seafood industry interests were stunned by Monday’s federal decision to shut down a sector with ties to disgraced fishing magnate Carlos Rafael, a decision they say will cut into the livelihoods of fishermen during the holiday season and beyond.

“The ruling itself was unexpected,” said Andrew Saunders, a New Bedford attorney retained two months ago by Northeast Fishery Sector 9, one of 19 non-profit entities set up to manage fishing industry operations in the face of strict catch limits imposed by the federal government.

The decision stems from the fraud perpetrated by fishing magnate Carlos Rafael, but New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell says there’s collateral damage involved for people in the New Bedford area whose jobs are tethered to the harvesting of groundfish such as cod, flounder and haddock.

“The tying up of these vessels will deprive crew members opportunities to earn a living and it will eat into the revenue of shoreside businesses that support the industry,” Mitchell told the News Service, citing impacts on fuel and ice suppliers, net menders and settlement houses.

The decision was handed down by NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard, a former mayor of New Bedford. In his ruling Bullard zeroed in on Rafael, who was hit with a 46-month prison sentence in September after federal prosecutors convicted him of charges associated with falsifying records to evade federal fishing quotas and smuggling business proceeds to Portugal to avoid U.S. taxation.

“NEFS 9 has failed its primary responsibility of accurately reporting and tracking its catch and has taken only minimal, insufficient steps to ensure accurate reporting and compliance with its operations plan,” Bullard wrote. “The systematic sector and vessel misreporting over a long period of time was facilitated by an internal structure and control by a single, dominant participant combined with a lack of oversight.”

The sector’s failures appear to have led to repeated annual catch overages, “some of which may be extensive,” Bullard said. He added, “These overages may be continuing this fishing year, which threatens to continue undermining the sector system and its fishing mortality and conservation controls.”

The sector could come up with a new operations plan to submit, Bullard said, but it must address “the fraudulent catch” in the sector over multiple years.

Rafael’s wife, Connie, issued a statement after Bullard’s ruling.

“This Thanksgiving Week, our family wishes to express our appreciation and gratitude for the hundreds of people who have called, texted, and emailed their support during this challenging time,” Connie Rafael said. “We are hopeful that the legal system will provide this community with a meaningful opportunity to review this unexpected and unilateral decision by NOAA so that hard working families are not needlessly harmed during this Holiday Season.”

Virginia Martins, president of Sector 9, called NOAA’s ruling a “stop work order” and said it was surprising because regulators had met recently with those involved in the sector and scheduled a meeting in December to further discuss the issues.

“Based upon our good faith actions, we did not anticipate getting blindsided on this holiday week,” Martins said.

Saunders said the sector features 60 permits, including 22 that are active. NOAA ordered Sector 9 vessels to report to port Monday and Saunders said there were two vessels at sea near Provincetown at the time and they were coming back to New Bedford.

The sector was a focus of discussions with fisheries regulators at an Oct. 26 meeting in Gloucester, and Saunders said he hopes to resume talks. “The alternative is you sit at the dock and don’t do anything. You have to have a dialogue.”

In a statement, Congressman William Keating opposed a “heavy-handed approach” but NOAA but also stressed the importance of sustainable fisheries.

“It is important that we ensure proper protections for sustainable fisheries, however it is also critical that fishermen who have not been found guilty of any crimes are not punished,” said Keating, a

Democrat who represents coastal communities south of Boston. “Households across New Bedford depend on the fishing industry for their livelihoods. There are still unanswered questions about how this rule will affect the fishermen of New Bedford, however I would strongly oppose any heavy-handed approach by NOAA that would unduly affect the hardworking men and women of our community.”

Republican state Rep. Geoff Diehl of Whitman, a candidate for U.S. Senate, spoke up for both “accountability in reporting” and the fishing industry.

“It is a tragedy for New Bedford that federal regulators are prohibiting 60 permit holders from fishing until next May,” Diehl wrote on Twitter. “There needs to be a better solution than putting hundreds of New Bedford fishermen out of work as we head into the holiday season. Understanding the need for accountability in reporting within the fishing industry, I believe there should be a compromise allowing the fishing fleet to comply instead of unilaterally shutting them down over the next six months.”

Mitchell, a former federal prosecutor, said he was disappointed that NOAA has not taken the opportunity to wrap criminal and unsettled civil matters associated with Rafael into a global settlement that he said could have protected third parties and the importance of government enforcement.

Commercial fishing has over the years become more of a seasonal occupation, Mitchell said, and he’s hoping for a fresh start in 2018.

“My bigger concern is the long-term viability of the groundfish industry here in New Bedford,” he said. “I strongly believe that Carlos’ permits should remain here because if the government allows them to leave or goes ahead and revokes them then innocent third parties will be harmed.”