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Five Years After 'Codfather' Indictment, Former Rafael Fishing Boats Are Part of a New Era in New Bedford

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Jennette Barnes
Blue Harvest Fisheries CEO Keith Decker, left, and Gene Bergson, executive vice president of fleet operations, stand aboard the Schelvis, a fishing vessel the company is completely renovating after the previous owner, Carlos Rafael, was banned from commercial fishing. It was formerly called the Glaucus.

Gene Bergson is headed below decks on a commercial fishing vessel that used to be the Glaucus, named after a god of the sea.

“We'll go down into the engine room,” he says, “and then you can look back and see the work that’s been done — and is being done — to the boat.”

It’s been a little more than a year since this vessel was among the last big group of fishing boats sold off from the fleet of Carlos Rafael, the man known in the New Bedford fishing industry as “the Codfather.”

Rafael went to prison in 2017 for dodging catch limits, smuggling profits overseas, and evading taxes.

Some of his former vessels have become part of a new era on the New Bedford waterfront that started before he was indicted but has accelerated in the five years since, industry observers say.

It’s an era of increasing engagement with the outside world, embracing new technologies, and tracking fish from catch to sale.

Blue Harvest Fisheries bought 12 of Rafael’s groundfish boats, including the Glaucus, last year.

Bergson is in charge of a complete overhaul of the vessel.

Below decks, the hull is basically empty. Standing in the engine room, he can see straight through to the fish hold.

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Jennette Barnes
Workers in the nearly empty engine room.

“We pretty much have gutted it,” he said. “We've removed the old generators. We removed the main engine. We're going to repower the boat.”

Already, the vessel has been cut in half across the deck and lengthened by 15 feet, like adding a leaf to a table.

CEO Keith Decker said the space will make room for more advanced technology. The boat will have automatic fish-gutting machines and a system that makes a slurry of saltwater ice to rapidly chill the catch.

“Think of it as a Slurpee,” he said.

It completely coats the fish and brings it to near freezing in 20 minutes.

“If you were putting it on cube ice, which the majority of the fleet does, that takes 18 hours to get it down to that temperature,” he said. So by using a slurry, he said, “you have a significantly improved quality of fish.”

This boat is getting a new name, too. It’s now called the Schelvis, which is Dutch for haddock.

The transformation of the Schelvis could be a symbol of change on the New Bedford waterfront — in both technology and transparency.

Blue Harvest claims to be the only company paying an independent third party to monitor one hundred percent of fish offloads.

Among the other changes happening on the waterfront, more fishing outfits are doing their own processing, according to Jim Kendall, a former scallop captain who fished out of New Bedford and Fairhaven for 32 years.

They’re more of the labor themselves, and for good reason, he said.

“That increases the prices available to them,” he said. “And it also makes them more out of less. In other words, you've got restrictions on the amount of fish you can catch. So every nickel and dime you can add to that fish is value added.”

The New Bedford fishing industry generates business activity worth $11 billion a year, and 80 percent of that comes from one mighty bivalve — scallops.

Twenty years ago, scallopers were the first to set a tone that was more open to science, according to Ed Anthes-Washburn, who was port director for a decade before leaving in February for the private sector.

He said scallopers were much more open to bringing scientists on board their vessels and donating a portion of their catch, called the research set-aside, to understanding the stock. But over the last decade, and especially in the last five years, all kinds of fishing companies have become more comfortable with visitors to the waterfront.

“They tend to see the benefit of interaction with potential customers and the public as a way to tell their story,” he said.

That’s good for New Bedford’s brand and helps the entire port, Anthes-Washburn said.

Looking toward the future, the city of New Bedford hopes to entice a private partner to open a fishing-centered marketplace on the waterfront. It could have seafood stalls, prepared food, and a spot for visitors to watch fish unloaded from the boats.

“The concept is almost like a food hall, with a fish off loading facility,” Anthes-Washburn said. It would be a place to pick up seafood for lunch, to cook at home, or “potentially grab a beer,” he said.

The former port director said today’s fishing interests on the waterfront are no longer focused inward, as they once were, “kind of with their back to the city of New Bedford and focused on the ocean.”

He said the people leading the New Bedford fishing industry today understand the benefit of tying the city to the waterfront, “in a way that benefits the city, but also benefits themselves.”

That, he said, is truly the future of New Bedford fishing.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.