Massive fish fraud results in huge penalty for fishermen

In an unprecedented punishment, federal regulators Monday ordered scores of commercial fishermen in Massachusetts to return their vessels to shore after the owner of many of the boats, a New Bedford fishing mogul known as “The Codfather,” failed to account for the fish they caught and orchestrated a massive fraud.

A fisherman unloaded a basket full of fish last spring off a boat owned by Carlos Rafael. –Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A fisherman unloaded a basket full of fish last spring off a boat owned by Carlos Rafael. –Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The move immediately prohibits 60 permit holders, including 22 active vessels, from going back to sea until at least the start of the new fishing season in May.

Most of the vessels were operated by Carlos Rafael, the magnate who was recently convicted of one of the nation’s largest violations of fishing regulations.

The penalties could also cost dozens of fishermen their jobs and cause significant economic losses for the icehouses, fuel companies, and other businesses that supply the boats.

The decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration affects what is known as Northeast Fishery Sector Nine, one of 19 such federally permitted cooperatives in the region that share fishing quotas. This year, the group had been given a quota of 20 million pounds — or 10 percent — of the region’s cod, haddock, flounder, and other bottom-dwelling species.

    In a letter to the group, John Bullard, NOAA’s regional administrator, accused its staff of failing to carry out its most basic duties.

    “Accurate reporting, internal accountability, and organizational integrity are core principles of the sector system,” Bullard wrote. The group “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.”

    Rafael, who was sentenced in September to nearly four years in prison for tax evasion and flouting fishing quotas, served as the sector’s president until last May.

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