Two years ago, Carlos Rafael let it be known that he was ready to sell his New Bedford, Massachusetts-based fishing fleet and wholesale seafood dealership, a business that had combined assets of about $20 million.

But in a meeting with a couple of potential buyers from Russia, Rafael said the real asking price was $175 million and he assured them it would be well worth it. Pulling a ledger labeled “cash” from his desk drawer, the fishing mogul showed how he was able to falsify records to get around both tax law and fishing regulations, netting him millions of dollars in unreported income derived from systematically violating conservation limits.

But the buyers turned out to be undercover agents. And that’s how the feds finally caught up with “The Codfather.”

On March 30, Rafael pleaded guilty in federal court to a 28-count indictment that included charges of tax evasion, falsifying fishing quotas and conspiracy. He is facing up to six years in prison at his sentencing next month, but how much time he will spend behind bars is only one of the many questions that need to be resolved.

What will happen to his fishing fleet and its associated permits? Thirteen boats were connected with the indictment, and they are subject to seizure. But what about the rest of his 40-vessel fleet and wholesale business, which is still operating?

What kind of message will regulators send to others who might try to game the system and line their pockets by exploiting a dwindling natural resource? And what will the authorities do to compensate the biggest victims of this scam: the law-abiding men and women in the fishing industry who have seen their business shrivel while waiting for groundfish stocks to rebound?

The first step should be forcing “The Codfather” out of business. All of his fishing-related assets should be forfeited and his permits canceled, and he should be banned from the industry (a rare but not unprecedented sanction). Then his assigned share of the annual catch should be distributed among the rest of the fleet, giving the fishing community a chance to earn back some of what he effectively stole from them.

Rafael was able to take advantage of a system of regulation that went into effect in 2010. Instead of limiting the days in which fishermen could fish, the region’s entire sustainable catch was estimated and shares of it distributed to individual permit holders based on their personal landing history.

Because he was already a big operator, Rafael was entitled to a large segment of the total catch. Other small operations struggled to stay in business with their small share of the catch. The sheer size of Rafael’s business crowded out competition and made it possible for him to hide the massive catch that he sold illegally for cash.

Like everything regarding fishing regulation, redistributing Rafael’s catch share is more complicated than it sounds — and more political. The city of New Bedford has championed the cause of local fishermen and people in related businesses, who are concerned about what the collapse of the Rafael empire might do to their city’s economy. They want to keep those permits in local hands.

They have a right to be concerned. Rafael employed many people and brought millions of dollars into the city for many years.

But it’s important to remember that the fishing communities from Down East Maine to Rhode Island had to suffer as the regulatory burden on fishing got heavier, while key groundfish stocks like cod did not respond to their conservation efforts. Rafael’s looting of the high-value fish populations had an impact far greater than what could be felt in just one city.

Catching “The Codfather” was an important event in the attempt to save this struggling industry. But what regulators do next will matter just as much.

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