Brothers Richard and Raymond Canastra of the Buyers and Sellers Exchange seafood auction on Tuesday pulled out of their effort to acquire Carlos Rafael’s New Bedford-based groundfish fleet, clearing the way for Blue Harvest to pick up 15 boats.

(Read more in the Trial and errors of the Codfather, NF November 2017.)

Based in New Bedford, Blue Harvest in November made a $19.3 million play to buy the vessels and groundfish permits from Rafael, who must sell his assets and exit the fishing industry under a settlement with NOAA. The former New Bedford mogul is serving a four-year prison term for tax evasion and fishery violations.

Blue Harvest submitted a right of first refusal notice to permit owners in the Northeast Fishery Sector VII, and the Canastras — longtime operators of the Whaling City Seafood Auction and themselves sector VII permit holders — countered with their own bid for the boats Dec. 21.

In a statement Thursday, the BASE owners explained their plan was to sell permits and vessels to independent fishermen in the New Bedford region. But uncertainty over legal struggles with Blue Harvest, and poor material condition in the steel of some of the Rafael boats, prompted their decision to withdraw, the Canastras said.

“Unfortunately, the folks that encouraged BASE to move forward have now withdrawn their commitments due to Blue Harvest’s litigation,” they wrote. “While BASE expected to win in court, Blue Harvest would, of course, appeal the decision, thereby making it uncomfortable for prospective buyers to move forward until after the appeal had completed.

“To make matters worse, the survey of the steel found the vessels to be in much worse condition than expected. These developments made obtaining sufficient financing impossible.”

It’s the latest turn in a struggle over the future of the Rafael fleet, which once numbered around 40 boats, seen by the city’s fishing advocates and political leaders as critical to maintaining the industry there. They were encouraged in fall 2019 when deals were announced that will keep some of Rafael’s scallop boats and permits in New Bedford.

The Canastras said they wanted to do the same, seeing “an opportunity to more broadly distribute these permits and vessels among independent fishermen who share a mutual interest in this natural resource.” Other permits could have been set aside in a permit bank, they said.

“Although BASE withdrew its exercise of right of first refusal, BASE continues to be strongly committed to protecting the rights of independent fishermen that share a mutual interest in the natural resource.”

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Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for more than 30 years and a 25-year field editor for National Fisherman before joining our Commercial Marine editorial staff in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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