New England Fisheries
The Codfather Sentenced – Fish Fraud Will Not Be Tolerated in New England
On Monday, September 25, a federal court sentenced New England fishing magnate Carlos Rafael – “the Codfather”– to 46 months incarceration, a $200,000 fine, and three years’ probation, during which time he is barred from the fishing industry. The sentencing sends a strong message that systemic abuse of our fishery resources and management system will not be tolerated.
His story seems like one from a movie script, and is compared – even in jest – to “the Godfather” for good reason. The Codfather is the largest player in New England’s groundfish industry, seemingly unaffected by tight regulations as other fishing businesses collapsed around him. But when Rafael announced plans to sell his business, it piqued the government’s interest. Undercover agents posing as Russian buyers discovered years of illegal activity leading to Rafael’s arrest in early 2016. Ultimately, Carlos Rafael pleaded guilty to 28 criminal counts including conspiracy, misreporting fish to the federal government, tax evasion, and cash smuggling – amounting to the largest case of admitted criminal fishing behavior in U.S. history.
Now, you can’t blame Rafael for singlehandedly orchestrating the collapse of New England’s groundfish fishery. But you do have to wonder what part he played, as well as how our management system could have allowed for crimes of this magnitude to occur. By chronically lying about the species he was catching – including overfished stocks such as cod – Rafael potentially skewed our understanding of groundfish populations in New England, setting back decades-long management efforts to end overfishing and rebuild stocks.
Additionally, one could argue that the laughably low levels of monitoring coverage in New England’s groundfish fishery (which topped out at 14 percent of sector trips last year) contributed to the success of Rafael’s scheme. We are still waiting for information from NOAA Fisheries about civil penalties they are pursuing against Rafael, but now, with Rafael paying for his crimes, it’s time to turn our focus toward the future.
After months of silence, the New England Fishery Management Council finally took a positive step requesting that NOAA immediately enforce sector regulations to address Rafael’s violations. It’s encouraging to see the Council taking steps to mitigate the harms of Rafael’s actions, and now they should take steps to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.
Hopefully, fishermen in New England – many of whom have been affected by Rafael’s illegal activities – have been reassured by the Council’s action and the firm sentencing and believe that we can move beyond this dark point in New England’s fishing history. As Conservation Law Foundation attorney Megan Herzog said in a recent statement, “Going forward, it is critical that we implement stronger monitoring and enforcement at sea in order to ensure New England’s fishing industry operates on a level playing field.” Fortunately, the Council has a timely opportunity to do just that through the ongoing development of Amendment 23, commonly referred to as the Groundfish Monitoring Amendment. This Amendment has the potential to deliver the significant changes that are needed to better track landings and discards in the groundfish fishery in order to achieve full accountability, as well as ensure that the best available information is included in stock assessments.
Lastly, even though we have learned the fate of Carlos Rafael himself, the public has yet to learn the fate of his 13 groundfish vessels and associated permits involved in his criminal scheme. Many concerned citizens and organizations, including the U.S. government and local elected officials, have requested that the Court require the vessels and permits to be forfeited. The funds associated with the forfeiture can then be put towards a restitution fund for local fishing communities affected by Rafael’s illegal activities, as well as implementation of electronic monitoring in the groundfish fishery. In the meantime, we anxiously await the Judge’s decision on this important part of the case.