New Bedford Skipper Sentenced for Obstructing Fishery Inspection

Cable whips across the deck of the Bulldog as her net cuts loose (video still / USCG)

By The Maritime Executive 11-30-2018 04:36:03

A fishing boat captain who worked for New Bedford seafood kingpin Carlos "The Codfather" Rafael has been sentenced to two years' probation for attempting to hide evidence of a fisheries violation.

On May 31, 2014, the trawler Bulldog was working off the cost of Massachusetts when the U.S. Coast Guard boarded the vessel to perform a inspection of the vessel and its equipment. At the time of the boarding, the Bulldog’s net was in the water and the crew was actively fishing. The USCG boarding officer spoke with the Bulldog's captain, Thomas D. Simpson, in the wheelhouse and instructed Simpson to haul in the fishing net for inspection. 

The Bulldog's net was controlled from the wheelhouse by an electric winch, which Simpson activated. However, instead of hauling the fishing net onto the vessel, he let out more cable. When the boarding officer realized that Simpson was letting the net out, he ordered Simpson to stop and to haul the net in. Simpson ignored the order, and he continued to let out cable until the net cut loose and sank (below).

The Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hired a salvage company to retrieve the net from the seafloor. An inspection revealed that it had three separate layers of netting, in violation of commercial fishing regulations. When multiple fishing nets are placed on top of each other, the size of the openings are reduced, which prevents younger, smaller fish from escaping. The use of illegal nets may result in fines and forfeiture of fishing equipment.

“Mr. Simpson’s conduct was careless and dangerous. When he ordered the ship’s nets cut loose, rather than simply reeled in, the steel cables securing the net swung violently across the boat, endangering not only the Coast Guard boarding team but Simpson’s own crew,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling in a statement. “My office is committed to prosecuting those who impede federal inspections, especially when they jeopardize the safety of law enforcement officers and bystanders.”

In August, Simpson pleaded guilty to one count of destruction or removal of property subject to seizure and inspection. He will serve a two-year term of probation, with four months in home confinement with electronic monitoring, and will pay a fine of $15,000. 

Simpson's former employer, Carlos "The Codfather" Rafael, pleaded guilty last year to 28 criminal counts related to his business activities, including falsely labeling fish, smuggling cash and falsifying federal records. He has forfeited four boats and 34 fishing permits, and is serving a 46-month term in a prison in Fort Devens, Massachusetts. 

NOAA also is pursuing a civil action against Rafael and 22 of his captains for 88 civil violations. The action seeks more than $3 million in fines, a lifetime ban on Rafael's involvement in the fishing business, and the revocation of the permits of all the vessels that were implicated in his illegitimate activities. It also seeks to revoke the operator permits of 17 of his skippers.