In a long-awaited decision that could have a significant impact on New Bedford, federal regulators said Thursday they will allow fishermen who had been banned from operating to sell their quota to other vessels, a move that city officials hope will boost the local economy.
Last fall, in an unprecedented punishment, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration banned 60 fishing permit-holders in the New Bedford area from allowing their boats to sail, after the owner of many of those vessels failed to account for the fish they caught and pleaded guilty to orchestrating a major fraud.
That decision resulted in the forced docking of 22 groundfishing boats operated by Carlos Rafael, a disgraced New Bedford fishing mogul known as “The Codfather.”
Many of the boats’ captains and crews, who collectively held a quota of 20 million pounds — or roughly 10 percent — of the region’s cod, flounder, and other bottom-dwelling species, have been out of work since November. The ban has also hurt many related businesses in New Bedford that supplied the vessels with rope, fuel, ice, and other fishing necessities.
Thursday’s decision will allow many permit-holders in Northeast Fishery Sector 9, one of the region’s 19 federally permitted cooperatives that share quotas, to sell their allotment to other fishermen with permits to fish the same species. That will allow them to earn money and make it possible for more fish to be landed in the region.
NOAA officials also announced Thursday they had approved a decision by Sector 7, which now includes many of Rafael’s boats, to lease their fish allotment to other sectors as long as Rafael’s vessels remain inactive until they’re sold to independent buyers and their permits are transferred. In March, Rafael moved his boats from Sector 9 to Sector 7 in the hopes they would be allowed to fish under new management.
“We . . . understand the importance of getting this right as a critical step forward for Sectors 7 and 9, for the New Bedford fishing community, and for the groundfish fishery as a whole,” said Mike Pentony, NOAA’s regional administrator, in a statement. “Maintaining the integrity of the sector system is a paramount concern, and we are pleased to approve a fair and equitable resolution that helps ensure a viable New England groundfish fishery.”
Pentony said NOAA has estimated that 700,000 pounds of fish were not accounted for in Rafael’s catch between 2012 and 2015.
To address the overfishing, NOAA reduced this year’s quotas for Sector 9, which Rafael had long controlled. Sector 9, which is now under new management, still has to account for an estimated 72,000 pounds of witch flounder that exceeded its quota, Pentony said.
In a telephone interview, Rafael’s daughter, Stephanie Rafael-DeMello, who previously served as the manager of Sector 9, called NOAA’s decision “a step in the right direction.”
“It’s by no means a home run; it’s a baby step,” she said. “But it’s nice to see that some of the guys will have more flexibility. We’ll see what happens.”
Her father was sentenced in September to nearly four years in prison for tax evasion and flouting quotas. He was also required to forfeit his interest in four vessels and their permits, which have been valued at nearly $2.3 million.
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell called NOAA’s decision “an important first step and welcome relief.”
“Our focus now will be to advocate for the timely conclusion of the remaining civil enforcement case against Carlos Rafael and the transfer of his vessels and permits to third parties in the port of New Bedford,” he said. “Only then can we move past lease-only arrangements and return to normal groundfishing operations and management.”
Other officials lamented the wider impact of NOAA’s punishment.
“One man committed criminal actions and he’s justifiably in jail, but a lot of innocent people and businesses paid a price for his fraud,” said US Senator Elizabeth Warren, in a statement.
NOAA’s decision will take effect on Friday but is subject to a 30-day public comment period.