At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

NOAA vs. The Codfather

This blog is by NAMA's Coordinating Director, Niaz Dorry.

The sentencing of Carlos Rafael - who self identifies as the Codfather - is currently scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, September 25th & 26th, 2017.

If you haven't yet heard about the case of the biggest permit owner, fleet operator, and controller of the seafood system in the North East I encourage you to check out this in-depth piece in Mother Jones Magazine and this short piece on NPR's Morning Edition. 

Although Mr. Rafael has admitted to fisheries violations going back 30 years, the crimes he was arrested for last year involve more recent incidences. He has pled guilty to 27 felony counts including misreporting fish, quota manipulations, money laundering, and more. Thirteen of his groundfish permits - what he needs to catch fish like Atlantic cod, haddock, flounders, pollock, etc. - are involved in his illegal activities and are actually still fishing. Yes. You read that right. More on that below. 

Even though he has a longer trail of violations, what makes his recent crimes interesting is they occurred during the period of time that the Catch Share policy for New England groundfish has been in effect. Since the 2010 implementation of Catch Shares, Mr. Rafael has been able to amass more and more control of the region's groundfish quota and permits because the system adopted by NOAA set no boundaries for how much power any one entity could have. From the NOAA chart below you can see that fewer entities were controlling more of the groundfish pie as time under Catch Shares went on. By 2013 just 11 entities controlled 50% of all groundfish revenue. In fact, by 2013 the codfather alone controlled 25%.

2013 NOAA Final Report on the Performance of Groundfish
NOAA is complicit in Mr. Rafael's crimes because they made some huge mistakes along the way. As I lay out below, they have a chance to redeem themselves. But first, let's walk through what NOAA did or didn't do that brings us to today.

First, NOAA's decision to not put any limits in place around how much anyone entity can control was in direct rejection of public comments and fishermen's advice that such a free-for-anyone-who-can-pay-for-it approach to quota management would put the fishery in the hands of a few, and some of those few may have other priorities than the health of the ocean and all fishermen. 

Instead we heard from NOAA, some in the environmental community, and others in the fishing industry who were positioning themselves to get a big piece of a newly privatized fishery was that who owns the rights to fish is not critical to achieving ecological outcomes. As long as someone owns those rights we are to believe that there is an implicit guarantee that they'll be better stewards of the fish they "own." Yeah... right...

NOAA could've fixed things by adopting tight restrictions around consolidation in their recent ruling to amend the Catch Share policies. They didn't. They left the door wide open for others like Mr. Rafael - and Rafael himself - to keep amassing power at the expense of the fish and fishermen.

Once Mr. Rafael was arrested, NOAA could've suspended all his fishing rights, if not taken them away all together. They have taken similar measures and sometimes more for infractions that pale in comparison of what Mr. Rafael admitted to committing. But NOAA had an out: they needed proof.

When Mr. Rafael pled guilty to his crimes, NOAA had their proof. But they didn't stop his permits from fishing. Believe it or not, the 13 permits implicated in the IRS sting operation are still owned by Mr. Rafael AND still fishing under the Sector 9 of the Catch Share program.

NOAA has one more opportunity to save face, this time as part of Mr. Rafael's sentencing. Hopefully, the court will ensure maximum fine and jail time. As for NOAA's responsibility, nothing short of complete seizure of Mr. Rafael's assets are acceptable if NOAA expects fishermen - and the rest of us - to take their authority and concern for the ocean seriously.

In our victim's statement submitted to the court two weeks ago, in addition to maximum fine and jail time, we made the following restitution recommendations that NOAA needs to take to heart:

  • Mr. Rafael should be barred from any future involvement in fisheries.
  • Restitution of all Mr. Rafael's assets be considered on a New England-wide basis, not just New Bedford. The impact and harm caused by his crimes affects every fisherman who has held a groundfish and/or scallop permit and therefore they should receive restitution.
  • Restitution of Mr. Rafael's groundfish quota should exclude any entities currently controlling an excessive share of groundfish quota (2% or higher for any species identified under the Northeast multispecies fisheries management plan).
  • Restitution of Mr. Rafael's groundfish quota and scallop permits should provide a right-of-first-refusal to the fishermen who were put out of business or effectively removed from the groundfish and scallop fisheries due to Mr. Rafael's actions.

Of course, we would also like Congress to prohibit any new Catch Share policies during their Fish Bill reauthorization deliberations, and in the meanwhile NOAA to stop any Catch Share programs that lead to excessive consolidation and the privatization of our public resource.

Nothing short of these actions will be enough. NOAA can save face, if they are ready to be bold and brave.

Are they up for it? I'm not sure. Maybe you can give them a nudge by sending an email directly to the head of NOAA, Chris Oliver.

A couple of final thoughts:

To those in the fishing industry who believe we shouldn't attack another fisherman, keep in mind that Mr. Rafael is no more a fisherman at this point that Don Tyson is a chicken farmer. They have both used their power, privilege, and money to control their respective industries and the policies that are supposed to keep them in check. Sure each may contribute to their respective community's non-profit organizations and do what appears to show they care, but it doesn't change the stronghold they have on the system.

And, finally, to the environmental community who thinks everything will be fine as long as we just have more monitors... REALLY? Yes, monitors may address some issues of misreporting, which is important. But they do not address the root causes of a too-big-to-fail entity that was emboldened by policy and dominated the system. Until we hold the policies as equally accountable as those who abuse them, it won't matter how much monitoring we put in place. Unless of course we want to monitor excessive consolidation, power, and control. In which case, we are all for it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

NAMA & Slow Food at the United Nations Ocean Conference: Fish, Food, and a Healthy Ocean

This post comes from Brett Tolley, NAMA's community organizer.

Last week I had the honor of representing Slow Food International, NAMA, and our various networks at the United Nations' Ocean Conference. The topic of conversation was the connection between overfishing and our food system. You can read the transcript of my speech below plus watch the video here. (scroll to 58:50)

Brett Tolley delivers speech to at the United Nations Ocean Conference

Generally speaking, discussions around healthy food systems and healthy oceans are kept separate. In the world of marine conservation, the seafood system is completely left out. So the fact that the UN was connecting these dots was in some ways a victory in itself.

The significance struck me as I was walking east along Manhattan’s 42nd Street toward the world renowned UN Building. Dressed in a suit jacket and walking alongside the hectic traffic spilling out of Times Square I thought about my journey to arrive at this point. Coming from a rural fishing town where my comfort zone is basically the exact opposite of the NYC hustle and bustle, I thought of all the people who’ve been working tirelessly for many years to connect these dots between ocean and food systems. 

I thought about NAMA, Slow Fish International,, the World Forum of Fisher Peoples, the National Family Farm Coalition, Farm Aid, Health Care Without Harm, and so many others who have been at the forefront of this work to ensure that we learn from our land-based food system and avoid repeating the same mistakes on the water. It became clear to me that the topic for this UN discussion -- Overfishing and Sustainable Gastronomy -- was not on the agenda by accident. Our collective message is having an impact.

United Nations Side Event: Ocean, Overfishing, and Sustainable Gastronomy

The main message we brought to the UN was this: the health of our ocean is intrinsically connected to our food system. And the food system is intrinsically connected to human rights, community empowerment, and the broader policies that affect our food producers. 

Rethinking our food system is critical for the health of the ocean. We desperately need a new values-based seafood system. One that ensures decent livelihoods for all those along the supply chain, honors the ocean, creates fair access for communities who depend on seafood, and many other values. See the recently released LocalCatch Core Values

At the UN session, we heard from many (including ourselves) who are leading these efforts by building alternative direct marketing models such as dock to dish, farmers markets, Community Supported Fisheries, boat to institution, and many others.  

But we can’t stop there. We can’t eat our way out of this problem. Nor can consumers simply buy our way toward a healthy ocean. Although for some this is a great start, we need to dive deeper.

NAMA's Community Organizers at the UN Ocean
Conference: Julianna Fischer and Brett Tolley
We must simultaneously address the tsunami of fisheries policy that is displacing our small and medium scale fishermen. To give a sense of what we're up against, see the World Ocean Grabs report, this recent Mother Jones article that highlights our work, and the newly released Fish Market: the Big-Money Battle for the Ocean and Your Dinner Plate, by author Lee van der Voo.  

We can spend the time and energy to create alternative market structures and 'vote with our fork' but if the larger policies are not being addressed we'll have no small and medium scale fishermen to vote for.

Also, see the statement put out by the World Forum of Fisher Peoples to the United Nations in advance of last week’s conference. We stand in solidarity with the WFFP and recognize their great work in developing the United Nations Guidelines for Sustaining Small Scale Fisheries, which is a starting point toward solutions.

Overall our message was well received. We were able to carry the torch and continue connecting the dots between our ocean and food systems. We'll continue shining a light on ocean grabbing and continue building models toward food justice. If you haven't already, please hop on our newsletter and join our Facebook page to stay in the loop of these opportunities.


Delivered By Brett Tolley
June 6, 2017
New York, NY

To talk about the theme of this Side Event, overfishing and sustainable gastronomy, I want to start by sharing a personal story. My earliest memories are being on the deck of my father’s small-scale fishing boat and feeling the salt water hit my face. Like my father and his father before him, I learned to love the ocean and the infinitely complex ecosystems in which we lived and in which my family earned its living. My father was a small-scale fishermen and loved his work. He loved feeding people and working hard. He loved being on the water and caring for the marine ecosystems that provided his community with so much.  

But due to the increasing pressure from the global commodities market for seafood, my father wasn’t getting paid a fair price for his catch that reflected his true cost of overhead. Not only was he not getting paid a fair price but no matter how well he took care of his fish, he was not rewarded or recognized. At the same time policy designed to consolidate the fleet was pressuring fishermen like my father to increase volume in order to survive. And like thousands and thousands of fishermen, he had to make the choice: do I scale up or leave the fishery? Do I get big or get out? This is a similar question that many family farmers have faced over the years. In the end he tried to scale up in order to survive but fishing quickly transformed into something that he no longer loved and in fact, he began to hate. He got out of fishing and sold his boat last year.

For Slow Food International and the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, we believe that if we’re serious about ending overfishing and sustainable gastronomy, then we must give our community-based and small-scale fishermen a better option. Instead of forcing them into high-volume / low-value fisheries we need to think about high-value / low-volume and generating new opportunities to access seafood at the community level.

This is the approach we’ve been taking for the past decade, together with Slow Food International we’ve organized a new and exciting network called Slow Fish, aimed at promoting the values of good, clean, and fair seafood.

We’re building new relationships with restaurants and fish buyers around the world to move toward these values and others that include: principles of food sovereignty, fair price, fair access, eating with the seasons and rhythms of nearby ocean ecosystems, and supporting bottom-up, genuine democratic participation in fisheries management, and more. We’re building direct marketing models and alternative options for fishermen to connect with their community and receive a fair price while providing new avenues for access to locally caught seafood. We are working with institutions like hospitals and universities to shift their buying power toward fair price, buying from small and medium scale fishermen, and embracing the seasonality of what’s being caught in nearby waters.

But like a nearby fishing family once told me, we can do all this work to build alternative markets and sustainable seafood systems, but if we’re not paying attention to the larger fisheries policies than we will lose all the fishermen and communities that we care most about.

Policies and principles such as food sovereignty that allow for communities to have democratic control over their own food resources are intrinsically linked to sustainable gastronomy. You can’t have one without the other.

One of the biggest threats we see to our vision of a values-based seafood system and sustainable gastronomy is the false solution of privatization to our fisheries access and the broader theme of “Ocean Grabbing”.  We are being told that in order to save the ocean we must own it like private property. This is not true. One short story to share.

In New England we recently began a policy that privatized our fisheries access rights for fish like cod. The promise was that by allowing fisheries access to be bought, sold, and traded like stocks on Wall Street, we would better conserve the fish populations. Not only did the policy fail to save the fish, but it empowered one of the largest fleet owners in the country, who self refers to as the Codfather. This fleet owner was recently caught in a sting operation by the US Internal Revenue Service and charged on dozens of accounts of fraud, money laundering, and cheating. He pled guilty to all accounts and his sentencing trial will be in two weeks. Fishermen warned of these policies and their negative impact to small scale fishing communities, but their voices were silenced during the defunct democratic process of our fisheries management.

We see that as long as policies are allowing for the big to get bigger, we will see our values around sustainable gastronomy no longer have any practical application because the fishermen who are best poised to sustain our ocean and communities will no longer be there. These threats affect all of us in this room and the communities we represent.

The World Forum of Fisher Peoples recently produced a report titled “World Ocean Grab” that documents how and where these policies are taking place. The strategies are global in nature and therefore we must also resist them as a global community. In line with the World Forum of Fisher Peoples, we stand in solidarity with the United Nations’ efforts to create the Voluntary Guidelines for Sustaining Small Scale Fisheries. We recognize the efforts and leadership from the World Forum of Fisher Peoples and others to participate in the process. The Small-Scale Fisheries Guidelines are the starting point for our solutions. We encourage member States to channel efforts toward strengthening and implementing these guidelines as soon as possible.

So that for future generations of small and medium scale fishermen, they won’t be forced to get big or get out. They won’t be forced to make a killing. But rather, be able to fish in line with the ecosystem rhythms and make a living.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Shame on NOAA

This post comes from Brett Tolley, NAMA's community organizer.

Did you hear about the case of the 'Codfather' and how New England's largest fleet owner recently pled guilty to charges of fraud and corruption? If you haven't heard of him, listen to this Morning Edition piece. And today well guess what ... NOAA just opened the door for many sequels to the 'Codfather."

Today NOAA Fisheries announced its final ruling to approve Amendment 18 to the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management 'Catch Share' Plan. Instead of safeguarding against fleet consolidation and fisheries privatization -- which they claim the amendment will do -- this plan actually green lights the 'too big to fail' approach to fisheries management with no real safeguards or transparency in sight. The same policies that allowed the 'Codfather' to thrive will be going on unchecked. Shame on NOAA.

Voices of the vast majority of fishing community and public were ignored during this public process. Instead of listening to the 300+ public comments, dozens of in person testimonies from a diversity of fishermen, food advocates, and others, NOAA and the Council decided to listen to Catch Share advocates such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and their allies, and those in the fishing industry who were looking to make a killing through Catch Shares.

To accommodate them, agendas were shifted. Microphones were turned off. I was personally called an 'asshole' by the Council Chairman during a public hearing for insisting the public have a fair say while he was trying to shut down public input.

What this process has revealed is how the democratic process was subverted to make it easy for adopting fisheries management plans that privatize, consolidate, and corporatize our public resource and the ocean commons at serious environmental, economic, social, and food access costs.

One of those individuals whose interests were favored over all the other voices was Mr. Carlos Rafael, the 'Codfather.'  Scallop and groundfish Catch Share policies gave him the ability to dominate both fisheries and control pretty much the entire system: the quota, permits, boats, processing, transportation, the whole gamut.

Five years ago I spoke at a Fisheries Council meeting about the need for safeguards to protect against Catch Share policy that was consolidating the fleet and privatizing fisheries access. Mr. Rafael followed my testimony by pledging $10 million to fight any attempts to stop consolidation and he threatened to tie up NOAA with legal battles.

Ultimately, Mr. Rafael and his Catch Share allies influenced the Council Amendment process ensuring that his quota shares would not be impacted. In fact, NOAA's final numbers (5% limit on permits and 15% on quota) were specifically designed to avoid affecting Mr. Rafael's business. Although it wasn't written explicitly, listening to Council discussions makes it pretty clear what took place.

Thanks to NOAA's actions, the same policy that allowed Mr. Rafael to thrive is still in place paving the way for a few entities - who are not necessarily people who actually fish - to control almost the entire system. Community-based fishermen are no longer in control of their how they should fish, where they should fish, when they should fish, and the scale of operation that best fits who they are and how they want to operate. All these factors have ecological consequences, so ultimately fishermen aren't the only ones harmed by bad policies like Catch Shares; the fish and the ocean also lose.

As NAMA we will not stand for this. Despite this process not leading to the right outcomes, this process has strengthened our network and deepened our connections to community based fishermen and unlikely allies who would have otherwise not paid attention to fisheries issues. The issues surrounding Catch Share policies are not unique to New England. They are spreading throughout the United States and around the Globe. Check out the Global Ocean Grab report from our friends the World Forum of Fisher Peoples.

We must continue organizing and building strength for fishing communities. We must continue to reject false solutions like Catch Shares that claim to benefit the marine ecosystem. And we must continue to hold NOAA fisheries more accountable to the public and less accountable to those who are pushing for these policies for all the wrong reasons.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Defining "family fishermen"

This post comes from NAMA's Coordinating Director, Niaz Dorry.

We often are asked "what do you mean by family fishermen" or community-based fishermen, or a Big Box Boat. I have often felt these questions are presented as a distraction to get us to all wound up in a defensive position.

As many of you know, we have been working really closely with the family farm movement through organizations like the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), Farm Aid, Rural Coalition, and others. Not surprisingly, they are also often asked to define a family farmer.

It wasn't until the recent passing of Kathy Ozer, NFFC's executive director, that I got to listen to a short video clip of her talking about this very topic. In it Kathy talks about the values behind the term, and in fact starts by saying how "sometimes people ask this question as a distraction." Her words really reinforced for me how closely the struggles of family fishermen align with the family farmers' movement. Brett Tolley, our community organizer, wrote a blog about this vey topic a few years back when some challenged us to define what we mean by Big Box Boats. To us, it has less to do with the size of the boat and more about the values its operations embodies.

So in case you are wondering, here's what we mean when we talk about family fishermen using Kathy's words:
"...sometimes people ask it as a distraction. Real issue is who controls, who makes decisions, is there an ability for that family to be in control of decisions and be able to recoup what they should be earning as a family for the work they are doing. We use independent, diversified, small and mid-size."
I realize that Kathy's answer - or ours - doesn't fit nicely in a soundbite or an elevator speech, especially when status quo is telling us to "keep calm and believe in the labels." Whether that is the organic label or seafood standards, we know that although they are a great start, they don't go deep enough. When it comes to landfood we now know farmers who are going beyond organic. Some are prioritizing who controls the farm - and in our case the fishing business - as their first battle along the path to achieving sustainability. 

In my opinion, any sustainable fisheries label or standard that doesn't address the ecological, social, economic, and food justice implications of who controls the boat and the rights to fish is falling short of achieving truly sustainable fisheries.

In the seafood world, there are so many fishing operations that are going beyond the red, yellow, green lists and other labels but are outmarketed, outpoliticked, and outspent by the current system. The values they bring to your dinner tables are outlined here. We hear similar values from the many farmers we have come to meet over the past nine years that we have been a member of the National Family Farm Coalition. 

Generations of the Eldredge family carrying on the family's fishing business. Photo courtesy of Shareen Davis Photography
Thanks, Kathy, for taking the words right out of our collective mouths when it comes to defining who we see as the true stewards of land and sea. And, thanks to all those who came to our Rock the Boat for Kathy Ozer event recently honoring her work and legacy, which clearly will be relevant for a very long time.

Over this next year you'll hear more about our work bringing family fishermen and family farmers together to highlight their values and fight for an equitable, just, and ecologically sound food system. So stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Defining ‘Sustainable Seafood’: Is it all about the fish?

This post comes to us from Taylor Witkin, Masters student in Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island, and was originally posted on SustainFish on October 10, 2016.

Ask a Whole Foods customer at the fish counter to define sustainable seafood and he might refer to fisheries conservation or pollution-free aquaculture. Or he might tell you that sustainable seafood is a tuna steak with a green Seafood Watch label in front of it. Folke et al. 1998 suggest that sustainable seafood originates from practices that make use of an ecosystem’s capacity without degrading it whilst protecting it from economic and social forces that incentivize misuse of that ecosystem. Though these definitions fit the concept as it pertains to the practice of fishing, sustainable seafood is also a marketing tool. Similar to the ascension of organic in terrestrial food markets, to completely define sustainable seafood one must address the role of marketing and its impacts on fishers and seafood markets as the concept becomes more mainstream.

Multiple organizations have sought to define and promote sustainable seafood. Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA), and others, have created guides like Seafood Watch that make it easy for other-wise unknowledgeable consumers to identify seafood that MBA deems sustainable. Seafood Watch’s guiding principles account for fisheries management structures, rate of bycatch, ecosystem degradation, and greenhouse gas emissions, to name just a few. However, these guides do not consider the social and economic complexities within the seafood industry. Tacking ‘sustainable’ onto seafood adds value to products. So the system can hurt fishers trying to compete in markets that value sustainability if certain regulations do not exist or equipment needed to receive certifications is too expensive.

In 2015, environmental non-profits like Oceana (which I worked for) lobbied for a bill that would allow Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries agents to enforce a federal law requiring turtle excluder devices (TED) on shrimp trawl nets. Despite the lack of enforcement, many shrimpers used TEDs to voluntarily reduce turtle bycatch. But before the bill passed, Seafood Watch listed Louisiana shrimp as “avoid” because Louisiana did not enforce the use of TEDs. Many Louisiana shrimpers’ fishing methods fit Seafood Watch’s guiding principles, but because of rigid rules defining sustainable seafood, those watermen could not add value to their catch; with a red “avoid label attached to their shrimp, they could not compete in markets that placed a premium on sustainability.

As a seafood retailer and then employee at a large environmental NGO, I have questioned the benefits of bringing sustainable seafood, as a marketing concept, into the mainstream since local, small-scale fishing fleets usually have lower ecological footprints than industrial fleets, despite ecolabels. Does excluding small-scale fishers from markets because of a marketing tool represent the concept of sustainable seafood? As consumers increasingly value sustainability, how can small-scale fishers compete with large operations that can pay for sustainability ratings? The concept of sustainable seafood must include economic consequences as well as ecological benefits. Truly sustainable seafood is harvested with minimal impact to an ecosystem and with as much benefit to fishers as possible.