Fishing boats in New England’s Sector IX groundfish fleet that were in danger of being barred from leasing groundfish quota moved into Sector VII in late March in order to recoup losses from a post-Carlos Rafael trip shutdown of the New Bedford groundfish industry. But the process of approving new operating plans will keep that quota frozen until midsummer at the latest.

NMFS reported that Sector IX was shut down completely in order to determine how much of the sector's quota was illegaly used to cover Rafael's quota evasion scheme.

Under a new plan operating plan put forward by the sector, which was narrowly recommended for approval by the New England Fishery Management Council with a 7-5-5 vote, NMFS will treat illegal catch in each fishing year as if it was known immediately after the end of the season, eliminating any carryover of unused quota into the next fishing season if there was any illegal fishing.

The council recommended that that NMFS authorize the "lease only" operations plan "with the condition that all overages attributable to the known misreporting are paid in full.

“As part of our discussions with Sector IX, we made clear that paying back the overages was an essential part,” said Liz Sullivan of NMFS’ Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office. “We consider the payback of the overages an essential first step.”

Any vessels and permits previously belonging to Rafael will remain inactive until they are sold, and the vessels involved in the forfeiture process are banned indefinitely.

“My understanding is the vessels that were subject to forfeiture, even before the withdrawal of the operations plan, they were stopped from fishing by the Department of Justice,” said Sullivan. “I don’t believe anything has changed regardless of what sector they were enrolled in or what operations plan that sector has.”

The approved plan was complex enough that it must go through a separate rule-making process to be finalized, an action that NMFS officials say will not come before May 1.

It's unclear whether the payback of overages will be the responsibility of the 55 vessels that left the sector or the five that remain in Sector IX. Data concerning final overages are still being worked on, according to NMFS officials.

Some council members who voted against the plan or abstained from voting expressed concern about an entire city's fleet being punished for Rafael's actions and suggested making more fundamental changes to the regulations.

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell was present and spoke about the effect the ongoing ban has had on the community.

“The NOAA decision has had – and continues to have – troubling economic consequence for the Port of New Bedford and our local economy,” he said. “It is important for all parties to keep in mind the numerous New Bedford businesses and families who have played no direct role in the operation of sector IX, but who now find themselves in severe financial distress as a result of the sector's closure.”

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Samuel Hill is the former associate editor for National Fisherman. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine where he got his start in journalism at the campus’ newspaper, the Free Press. He has also written for the Bangor Daily News, the Outline, Motherboard and other publications about technology and culture.

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