An Ocean Apart, Two Arrests Highlight the Vast Scale of Illegal Fishing | Oceana
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March 29, 2016

An Ocean Apart, Two Arrests Highlight the Vast Scale of Illegal Fishing

The owner of one of the largest fishing fleets in New England has been accused of mislabeling cod as more common species to evade catch quotas.
Vlada Photo / Shutterstock


Two fishing empires in Spain and the United States are in trouble with the law again for suspected illegal activities — and this time, it might be the end of the line for both. Spanish and international police recently arrested five members of the Vidal family and one employee for alleged environmental crimes, among other charges. In Massachusetts, Carlos Rafael, the owner of one of the largest commercial fishing fleets in the northeastern United States, is awaiting trial for charges of conspiracy and submitting falsified documents to the federal government. These arrests expose how some operators exploit the shadows of the seafood industry to make millions. 

“What this shows is that illegal fishing is a real crime,” said Beth Lowell, senior campaign director for Oceana. “We’re not talking about one fisherman catching one fish over his quota. Illegal fishing can include organized criminal networks and amount to a real impact on the health of the oceans.”

The Vidal family is no stranger to legal trouble. Earlier this month, the Spanish government confirmed that companies linked to the family were fined a record-breaking $20 million for illegal fishing in 2015. That same year, New Zealand’s navy unsuccessfully pursued three boats with ties to the Vidals for suspected poaching of Patagonian toothfish, a lucrative species marketed as Chilean sea bass. 

The involvement of international police and Spain’s high court underlines the seriousness of the charges brought against the Vidals. If convicted, they may face prison time, rather than just fines. “This announcement is a watershed in the fight to eradicate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing of our oceans,” Lasse Gustavsson, executive director of Oceana in Europe, said in a statement.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the arrest of “codfather” Carlos Rafael in New Bedford, Massachusetts, exposes the dark underbelly of New England fisheries. Rafael — who publically valued his 40-vessel empire at $21 million but privately placed its worth closer to $175 million — has allegedly evaded quotas on protected fish species by taking advantage of laws that allow fishermen to self-report their catch.

According to a court affidavit, he revealed his scheme to IRS agents posing as Russian gangsters interested in buying his operation. Rafael explained, “when the guy [the dockside inspector] disappears, that’s when we got a chance to make that fish disappear and that fish disappears under a different name.”

He then went on to explain how his company, Carlos Seafood, routinely reported its landings of flounder and cod as cheaper, more abundant haddock on federal reporting documents while selling the fish at a higher price to buyers in New York.

According to Gib Brogan, Oceana’s Northeast representative, this case unmasks the surprising scale of illegal fishing in the United States, which government agencies have been slow to recognize. As Brogan explained, Carlos Seafood alone may be to blame for the stagnant recovery of New England’s prized cod: “It’s entirely possible that the scheme that Carlos Rafael was engaged in was catching as much cod as the entire fishery was supposed to be fishing.”

Illegal fishing robs honest fishers and thwarts efforts to manage struggling fish populations. According to researchers, an estimated minimum of 20 percent of all seafood caught around the world is snagged illegally, representing a loss of between $10 and $23 billion every year. For high-value species, the percentage of the catch that’s illegal climbs even higher — up to 10 times more Patagonian toothfish is caught than is officially reported. 

Current laws haven’t deterred seafood fraud and piracy. Compared to legal fines, the value of an illegal catch can be astronomical. Even after a $350,000 fine, one Washington State fish processor who mislabeled a cheaper salmon species as the more expensive Chinook was still able to make close to $1 million in profits from a single catch. “We need to make sure the penalty for the crime is not just the cost of doing business,” Lowell said.

In addition, fishers associated with criminal activity can still benefit from the same government aid that supports their law-abiding counterparts. According to Oceana research, Vidal family companies received more than $11 million in subsidies from Spain and the European Union between 1997 and 2009 — even as they were sentenced to probation and ordered to pay fines for multiple infractions.

Expanded vessel monitoring coupled with boat-to-plate seafood traceability could help put a dent in pirate fishing. In the Northeast U.S., Brogan noted, there are independent monitors on only one out of five boats — meaning that the majority of vessels operate without oversight. Lowell added that the labyrinthine complexity of seafood supply chains can take enforcement officers years to untangle. “Had we had full-chain traceability,” Lowell said, “officials would have been able to see this a long time ago.”

Despite mounting evidence of pirate fishing in domestic waters, the U.S. trails Spain when it comes to combatting these activities. In fact, on Monday, the U.S. government proposed dropping the monitoring levels for fishing trips targeting New England groundfish such as cod from 24 percent to 14 percent — leaving 86 percent of all trips unobserved.

Oceana fights illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing by promoting full-chain traceability for seafood and technologies to track fishing vessels. Learn more here, or donate to support our work.