New England Fisheries

One strike and you’re out: Indictment of prominent MA fisherman exposes massive corruption

Fishing boats in New Bedford, MA.

In an industry with too much at stake, Rafael’s indictment is overdue.

The criminal arrest and indictment of the region’s largest fisherman, New Bedford’s Carlos Rafael, for multiple charges of fraud, misreporting, tax evasion, and money smuggling will no doubt lead to even more indictments. These callous acts of one individual, no matter how prominent, should not be used to brush an industry with the tar of his apparently corrupt practices.

But they certainly raise several important issues in my mind:

First, this was his fourth arrest as a fisherman. He has already been convicted of tax evasion and, separately, of filing false landings reports. Why was this man still fishing, let alone being allowed to own and operate 40 boats and probably holding the most quota under one man’s control in the region? I think he should have been out of the business on his first conviction of falsifying fishery records. These were intentional acts that should have disqualified him long ago for any further involvement in an industry that runs on trust.

The reality, I fear, is that most of the bad guys in this industry don’t get caught and, even worse, when they do get caught, the fines and penalties are just written off as a cost of business – and they are right back out there cheating. Marine fishing operates with the use of a public resource, and those who cheat are no better than the foulest poacher.

Strike that. They are worse, because they drive the good and honest fishermen and dealers out of business. And unfortunately, Rafael’s alleged crimes are not an isolated instance. I hear stories all the time about fishermen who continue to use illegal liners in their mobile gear to catch fish; even fishermen who “accidently” sweep up stationary gillnets, hoping those nets will help them catch more fish by clogging the mesh openings in their “legal” nets. A perfect excuse of “ignorance” if there is a rare Coast Guard boarding at sea and the non-conforming net is discovered. Hard to know how many of these stories are true, but surely some of them are.

Given human nature, there will always be people in any business who cheat to get ahead. But this is one business where it would make sense to have a one-strike-and-you’re-out rule for any major intentional offense. You can exercise the privilege of fishing in federal waters and the regulators won’t put a policeman on every boat to monitor your behavior, but if you cheat and you get caught, you lose it all: your boat, your profits, your permits, your license, and the right to call yourself a New England fisherman.

I may be imagining it, but I can’t help but think that many of the good and honest commercial fishermen around New England will read the story of Rafael’s arrest with a sigh of relief and a thought: “it’s about time.”


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