Just before Thanksgiving, federal regulators took the unprecedented move of shutting down part of New Bedford’s fishing fleet known as sector 9, and ordering fishermen back to port. It was a shocking move that has kept 22 fishing boats tied up at the dock and put more than 80 commercial fishermen out of work. In addition, more than 300 dockside support workers who provide everything from ice and fuel to nets and accounting are affected, and if the shutdown continues, will be forced out of business.
Regional Fisheries Administrator John Bullard — who happens to be a former mayor of New Bedford — ordered the shutdown because of what he said was gross mismanagement of the sector, pointing to the infamous “Codfather,” Carlos Rafael, as the culprit. Rafael dominated the sector 9 fleet, which he was in part tasked with managing. His massive fishing operation was brought down when undercover agents discovered a scheme in which he sold illegally caught cod and flounder and big profits, sending the money to Portugal. He is now serving a four-year prison term after admitting to the charges.
The attorney representing the out-of-work fishermen, Andrew Saunders, says there’s a whole new board managing sector 9 and they’re making great progress. But Bullard, while appreciating the effort, says it’s not nearly enough just to change the board; there has to be a full accounting of just how many fish were illegally caught by Rafael and a plan to prevent such violations in the future.
Despite their hope to be back at work before Christmas, the sector 9 closure is in effect until next May, and Bullard shows no sign of changing his decision. But by May, many shoreline companies may be out of business. The current mayor of New Bedford, John Mitchell, says although the sector 9 shutdown is serious, he is more concerned about what will happen to the dozens of valuable groundfish permits Rafael owned. When he forfeits them as expected, they could be redistributed to other ports as far away as Maine. Mitchell says that would have a more long- lasting effect on the New Bedford fishery. Whatever happens, Mitchell says Rafael's fall won’t bring down the New Bedford fishing industry, still the largest and most valuable in America, but it will leave some long-lasting scars.