Last year, the U.S. government hauled in a big fish: Carlos Rafael, dubbed ‘the Codfather.’ For years, Raphael was the largest player in New England’s groundfish industry, but last September he was handed a four-year prison sentence and a partial seizure of his groundfish fleets and permits. The charges against him include false labelling and falsifying fish records in order to exceed fishing quotas, as well as cash smuggling and tax evasion. Illegal fishing is big business, and the Codfather’s story is just one example of how it is harming the oceans.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) Fishing around the world has an estimated value of $23 billion USD annually and accounts for up to 30 per cent of global catches. For Rafael, this illegal fishing took the form of claiming his vessels caught haddock or pollock when in fact they were fishing valuable but depleted species subject to stricter quotas – such as cod – which he then sold for cash.
To help manage fish populations, species are monitored and this information is used to determine how much we can catch without overfishing. Fisheries science works to ensure we can catch fish and support the local industry, without depleting the populations to the point where the species can’t sustain itself. This system only works when everyone is transparent. When you add in a character like Rafael, everyone else loses. That is, until fake Russians step in to take him down.
In 2015, Rafael was worth tens of millions of dollars and looking to cash out. Members of what appeared to be a Russian crime syndicate showed up at his warehouse, ostensibly to buy his business. Rafael explained to them how Carlos Seafood, Inc. was worth more than eight times what he’d reported to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). He also bragged about how easy the system was to rig in his favour and joked about how it would be ‘bad luck’ if the Russians he was speaking to actually worked for the IRS – which they did. The men Rafael was meeting with were undercover federal agents who were recording the conversation for a joint investigation by the IRS and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Taking down an illegal fisher like Rafael required undercover IRS agents posing as Russian criminals; however with better regulations in place we can stop IUU fishing before it gets this out of hand. What is needed is more transparency in the fishing industry. In Canada, mandating boat-to-plate traceability is one way we can help ensure more information is available to each individual along the supply chain, exposing fraud wherever it may occur.
To find out more about The Codfather and the impact of illegal fishing, watch Episode 6 of the Netflix series Rotten: Cod is Dead.