New Bedford's Fishing 'Codfather' Pleads Guilty

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On the New Bedford waterfront, the "CR" on the boat stands for Carlos Rafael. (Courtesy Tristan Spinski for Mother Jones/FERN)
On the New Bedford waterfront, the "CR" on the boat stands for Carlos Rafael. (Courtesy Tristan Spinski for Mother Jones/FERN)

Updated at 4:10 p.m.: Carlos Rafael has pleaded guilty in federal court.

"I am not proud of the things I did that brought me here, but admitting them is the right thing to do," he said in a statement, "and I am prepared to accept the consequences of my actions."

Original post: 

The rags to riches story of New Bedford fisherman Carlos Rafael may be headed back to rags.

The Portuguese immigrant started out as a fish cutter, launched his own seafood company, and went on to acquire the biggest fishing fleet in New England and perhaps the entire country.

Well-known, well-feared and bigger than life, Rafael was known as the "Codfather." But on Thursday he’s expected to plead guilty in federal court in Boston before the prosecutors who hauled him up in a net of charges involving a long-running scheme to file false reports and smuggle cash out of the country.

David Boeri joined WBUR's Morning Edition host Bob Oakes to discuss the case.

Bob Oakes: Who is Carlos Rafael?

David Boeri: Rafael grew up in the Azores, and by his own account he manipulated his parents into coming to America in 1968 when he was 15. He started out making sausages, then cutting fish, started his own seafood company, and then started buying fishing boats to provide himself with a steady supply of product. And he kept getting bigger.

How did he come to be known as the "Codfather?"

By his own telling, he was "Mister Big." He played fast with rules. He went to prison for evading income taxes. Broke all kinds of fishing rules and regulations. He was abrasive and belligerent, and he had a poster showing "The Godfather" and Tony Montana from "Scarface," and he was just as vulgar. He called himself a "pirate" and pretty much taunted the fisheries managers to "catch me if you can."

Here's Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation:

"A lot of folks were not surprised that he got caught. The bigger surprise is that it took the government so long to catch him."

And catch him they did it appears. What’s he accused of doing?

Massive fraud is at the heart of this. It has to do with fishing for groundfish like cod, haddock and flounder. The haddock is plentiful right now, but the stocks of cod and flounder are alarmingly small off the coast here. So the basic problem for fishermen is that once you catch your limit of cod you have to stop fishing for haddock, even though there's so much more of it.

But, if instead of calling a cod a cod, you call it a haddock, you could pretend you haven't met your limit. And that's what Rafael is charged with doing.

How did he get away with it?

One big advantage is that since Rafael owns the seafood company, he is landing his own fish on his own boats on his own docks and in his own processing system. So there's a criminal enterprise at work and all the catch reports that he turns over to the government are falsified.

What was the extent of Rafael's false reporting?

Over 800,000 pounds of fish is what prosecutors allege Rafael falsely reported. But that was only over three years of this case. And Rafael brags on tape that he's been doing this for over 30 years.

So we are talking about millions of pounds of fish. Again, here's Peter Shelley:

"I suspect that Captain Raphael has been mislabeling fish from day one, and over the years got very good at it. So, there's no telling really how many millions of pounds his boats likely caught and either mislabeled or just threw back overboard illegally."

And remember these are from the scarcest fish stocks of all, the cod and flounders.

What's been the effect on those stocks?

It's hard to say. But here's the key: The best way biologists have of estimating the population of cod and flounder stocks is to monitor the number of fish being caught. And Rafael alone is thought to have thrown the count off by millions. That may explain, biologists suggest, why the fish stocks are far smaller than scientists have been projecting over the years.

Here's John Bullard of the National Marine Fisheries Service:

"The management is based on science. That's fundamental for science to be done well. An awful lot of data comes from fishermen. ... It needs to be accurately reported. Trust is essential."

What's going to happen to Carlos Rafael?

He's expected to plead guilty and he could face serious time, but the real question is how much he is going to forfeit to the federal government. He has a fleet of 30 boats, over 40 fishing permits and a corporate empire some have pegged at over $100 million. What he forfeits could have a big impact on this troubled fishery.

What brought the "Codfather" down in the end?

From accounts of those who encountered him, Rafael loved to boast about how he screwed people. And when two men showed up at his office, purporting to be Russian immigrants hooked into organized crime. Rafael boasted about how he'd screwed the government, and brought out his secret books to show how he did it. That's how the undercover agents landed the "Codfather" — hook, line and sinker.

This article was originally published on March 30, 2017.

This segment aired on March 30, 2017.

Headshot of David Boeri

David Boeri Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.



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