NEW BEDFORD — In the harbor off Leonard’s Wharf, the large steel boats with their signature green hulls are rusting in the salt air, their dormant nets still coiled as if ready to scoop up schools of cod or haddock.
In the parking lot behind Reidar’s Manufacturing, more than a dozen trawls molder in the dirt, their floats and cables weathered and waiting.
From the icehouse to the auction house, a pall hangs over the fabled wharves in New Bedford.
As the new fishing season begins, many of the city’s fishermen are unemployed, their suppliers stuck with excess inventory, and local officials are questioning whether the millions of dollars in lost revenue will cost the port its ranking as the nation’s most valuable, as it has been for the past 17 years.
Carlos Rafael, the disgraced fishing mogul known as “The Codfather,” is now in prison. But the consequences of his crimes are still being felt throughout New Bedford.
“It’s devastating what’s happened to us, and other businesses here,” said Tor Bendiksen, the manager of Reidar’s, a marine supply company.
Rafael, whose commercial fishing company was among the nation’s largest, pleaded guilty last year to flouting federal quotas and smuggling cash out of the country.
Six months ago, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration responded with an unprecedented punishment, temporarily banning 60 fishing permit-holders in the area from allowing their boats to operate and halting all operations by the fishing sector that failed to properly account for their catch.
That decision grounded 22 fishing boats, nearly all owned by Rafael and bearing his initials on their green-painted bows.
Many of the boats’ captains and crews, who collectively held a quota of 20 million pounds — or 10 percent — of the region’s cod, flounder, and other bottom-dwelling species, thought they would be back to work by the start of the fishing season, which began last week.
But despite their pleas for relief, NOAA has yet to lift the ban. That has left many fishermen wondering whether their boats will ever ply the waters.
Manny Magalhes, a captain who has worked for Rafael for the past two decades, feels as if he’s in purgatory.
“It’s been a struggle, and a lot of people are suffering,” said Magalhes, 45, the father of two young children. “It just feels unfair to us that there’s still no resolution to this.”
The longer the boats remain idle, the less likely many of the fishermen will stay in New Bedford, he said.
“We’re just waiting and waiting,” he said. “If a lot of guys give up and leave, I don’t know what will happen.”
NOAA officials acknowledge the fishermen’s woes, as well as the wider losses across New Bedford. But they said they have no choice but to enforce the law, even if it has wrought significant collateral damage.
“We understand these impacts are real,” said Michael Pentony, NOAA’s regional administrator.
Pentony said the blame extends beyond Rafael, who was sentenced in September to nearly four years in prison for tax evasion and violating fishing quotas. Rafael was also required to forfeit his interest in four vessels and their permits, which have been valued at nearly $2.3 million.
Sharing responsibility for his crimes is the Northeast Fishery Sector IX, one of the region’s 19 federally permitted cooperatives that share fishing quotas, Pentony said. Sector officials are obligated to ensure their boats comply with federal rules.
“The sector failed to meet the requirements, and its own standards of compliance,” he said. “We simply can’t not take enforcement actions when they have a wider impact, because then the regulations would have no teeth.”
Without enforcement, there would be little means of preventing overfishing, which could cause greater economic damage, he noted.
NOAA has been working with sector officials, Petony said, to find a way for its fishermen to get back on the water. But the sector first has to make restitution on the fish it landed fraudulently by leasing quota from another sector, offsetting the overfishing.
The sector then has to submit a new operations plan for NOAA’s approval, a process that could take several more months and requires public input.
Pentony blamed the delays in returning to active operations, in part, on the sector, noting that many of its boats surprised NOAA by announcing that they were transferring to other sectors. Those boats, however, will have to be sold to independent owners before they can return to sea.
For businesses that rely on the fishing industry, the resumption of operations can’t come soon enough.
At Bay Fuels, which supplies diesel to boats in New Bedford, the owners of the company estimate they’ve lost about 500,000 gallons of fuel sales since the ban took effect last November, costing them about $1.3 million.
“I’ve never seen it this bad before,” said Virginia Martins, president of Bay Fuels, who took over from Rafael as president of Sector IX. “Enough is enough.”
She added: “Next year, this isn’t going to be the No. 1 port in America.”
Over the past six months at BASE New England, the largest seafood auction house on the East Coast, company officials say they have sold 2.7 million fewer pounds of fish than during the same period last year.
Making matters worse, groundfish prices plummeted as buyers stocked up on product from elsewhere, they said.
At Reidar’s Manufacturing, Bendiksen estimated that his business has lost about one-third of its revenue over the past six months. He has also had to lay off one of his employees.
“This has been like a gut punch,” he said. “A substantial amount of our income vanished instantly.”
Dan Georgianna, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, estimated that the fishing ban has cost the region’s economy nearly $500,000 a day.
Georgianna, who also sits on the board of the fishing sector, called NOAA’s punishment “unfair” to New Bedford.
“It affects people who have committed no crimes,” he said. “None of the captains or suppliers were charged.”
New Bedford’s mayor, Jon F. Mitchell, has also urged NOAA to lift the ban as soon as possible. But he said he is less worried about the health of the city’s overall economy, noting that groundfish now represent less than 10 percent of the port’s overall catch. Most of the earnings come from scallops.
He also called Georgianna’s figures “overstated,” as did Pentony, who cited an internal NOAA analysis that suggested the ban’s impact was less than Georgianna suggested.
“Regardless of the precise loss, the closure has had a significant impact on a number of businesses and commercial fishermen, so it’s incumbent upon NOAA to resolve the matter with all deliberate speed,” Mitchell said.
NOAA officials are reviewing plans that would allow the permit-holders to begin leasing their quotas to other fishermen.
But that would have little benefit for fishermen and those like Pedro Jose Cabral, who rely on the boats to keep sailing.
Cabral, a welder who still works for Rafael’s company, has had a lot less work in recent months to keep the green boats seaworthy. The 31-year-old father said he has been struggling to provide for his three young children.
“It’s a terrible feeling when your kids ask you for something, and you can’t provide for them,” he said. “I hope things change soon.”