In a divided vote, the New England Fishery Management Council is backing a new operations plan for a sector of New Bedford boats that have been prohibited from fishing. However, the council said the plan should only be approved if certain conditions are met.
The sector of boats, called Sector IX, has been banned from catching groundfish, such as cod and haddock, for the past five months. Federal regulators from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the decision to prohibit all sector activity after fishing mogul Carlos Rafael, who has also been referred to as "The Codfather," pleaded guilty to misreporting the numbers of fish his boats were catching.
Now, Sector IX wants to be operational again as a “lease-only” sector, which means the boats would remain docked but could still make money by leasing their fishing allocation to other fishermen.
In addition, 55 boats from that sector want to move to Sector VII, which would leave only three boats in Sector IX. Sector VII's proposed operations plan would require boats owned by Rafael to be sold to an independent party before becoming active again, but those vessels could still lease their allocations in the meantime.
The boats from Sector IX moving to Sector VII that are not owned by Rafael would not have to change ownership before being permitted to fish again.
The management council is recommending that federal regulators approve Sector IX's lease-only plan with the condition that the unreported catch is paid back in full. Then, after the overages are paid back, the council said Sector VII's plan should also be approved, as long as the sector's Board of Directors follows through with the board's conditions.
That decision made during the council's meeting Wednesday was far from unanimous, with seven members voting "yes," five voting "no," and five abstaining.
As of now, it’s not clear how many boats from Sector IX will have to pay back the overages or when NOAA will make a final decision on each sector's plan.
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell sent a letter to the council Wednesday urging NOAA to make their decision for Sector IX as soon as possible.
In the letter, Mitchell said an economist from the School of Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth found the city's lucrative fishing port lost $12 million just 25 days after the sector's closure went into effect.