Codfather’s day of reckoning is here

Judge must send signal with Carlos Rafael’s punishment

ON MONDAY AND TUESDAY, Federal District Court Judge William Young will sentence New Bedford-based fishing magnate Carlos Rafael for his extraordinary crimes. Sometimes referred to as “the Codfather,” Rafael pled guilty in March to 28 charges against him, including conspiracy to evade fishing quotas, profit from the sale of misreported fish, and falsified reporting to the federal government.

Comparing Carlos Rafael to the Godfather conjures up an image of extensive criminal activity. But Rafael is no movie character—his crimes are real and the damage he’s inflicted on New England’s fisheries is significant. As such, he should face punishments proportionate to his crimes.

As far as we have been able to discover, Rafael’s crimes constitute the largest case of admitted criminal fishing behavior in US history. He illegally caught and misreported chronically overfished species, including cod, jeopardizing the health and sustainability of those species, disadvantaging other struggling fishermen, and potentially even setting back management efforts to end overfishing and rebuild stocks. His egregious crimes have caused serious harm that has rippled across many communities—from small-boat fishermen to Rafael’s many employees who face uncertain futures to everyone who wants to buy or sell sustainable seafood.

What happens in these criminal proceedings and the following civil sanctions that NOAA Fisheries will impose on Rafael will set a precedent that will have direct and far-reaching impacts on the nation’s fisheries and the coastal communities that depend on them. The government needs to stand strong against illegal fishing in this case and make it known to other fisheries – in the United States and around the world – that there is no place for any such damaging behavior within modern fisheries.

In a regulatory structure where scientists and managers depend on fishermen and fish dealers to report accurate data, where fishermen depend on accurate catch limits driven by science, and where fisherman compliance is based largely on the honor system, fishermen must act in good faith for the system to work. When illegal actors such as Rafael don’t hold up their end of the deal, it initiates a negative feedback loop virtually impossible to overcome that can bring down an entire fishery.

When this happens, everyone gets hurt: false reporting can lower confidence in the data, which leads scientists and fisheries managers to set more conservative catch limits or enact higher-cost enforcement measures, or both. Law-abiding fishermen will bear the burden of expected higher monitoring compliance costs as a result of Rafael’s crimes.

Just as importantly, false data can lead fishermen to doubt regulations. When there is little faith in the rules, fewer are willing to follow them. The anxiety surrounding the stability and future of our fisheries is well documented; regulations built on falsified data erode faith in the regulatory system and put critical management measures—and our fish populations, marine ecosystems, and economy—at risk.

It’s critical that Mr. Rafael’s prison term and other criminal penalties, as well as his civil sanctions, send a strong signal that conduct like his will not be tolerated within our nation’s fisheries. The court should order Rafael to forfeit the fishing vessels and permits that played a role in his criminal enterprise. Rafael should not be permitted to sell or otherwise decide the fate of the vessels and permits he used to commit crimes. The proceeds from these forfeitures could help bring relief to the groundfish fishery and provide funding for monitoring initiatives that would help mitigate the damaged caused by Rafael.

Federal regulators should also impose significant civil penalties and sanctions on Rafael. At minimum, he should be barred from the fishing industry. Fishing in federal waters is a privilege; Rafael has demonstrated through his long and unrepentant history of major violations that he cannot be trusted with that privilege. Looking forward, regulators must take a hard look at existing monitoring and enforcement policies and take steps necessary to ensure that something like this never happens again.

The stakes of this case are high. If the penalties imposed on Rafael do not match the severity of his crimes, other fishermen will question the value of abiding by regulations, generating a cascading effect that could be devastating for our fisheries management system and valuable fish stocks.

Meet the Author

Peter Shelley

Senior counsel, Conservation Law Foundation
What signal will the judge and federal regulators send to fishermen large and small, and to all of us with a stake in supporting a healthy and sustainable New England fishing industry? We’ll find out soon enough. But whatever the outcome of this case, building stronger New England fisheries will require good faith actors, reliable monitoring, and sensible regulations based on top-notch data—and that will require the best efforts of all of us.

Peter Shelley is senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation.