Carlos Rafael and His Fish Are the American Dream
May 24 2013
Carlos Rafael is talking about mosquitoes, elephant balls, and fishing, which isn’t unusual. He is talking so excitedly, he's almost ranting and that isn't unusual either. He is actually so into the conversation that he forgets to take a drag from his cigarette. It goes out and he relights it, while I wonder how the fuck someone can be so passionate about fishing.
We are sitting in "Carlos Seafood," an unremarkable looking seafood supply warehouse in an industrial park near the waterfront of New Bedford, a fishing port in southern Massachusetts that for 12 consecutive years has reported the most revenue from domestic fish landings in America. In 2011, that figure topped $369 million. Here, fishing is big business.
Downstairs, the warehouse smells like fish and wet sneakers. Upstairs, there is a no smoking sign in the hall.
Around the corner from that sign is an office with multiple sketches of Tony Montana on the walls. In it sits Rafael, the owner of the largest fishing fleet in the port. He owns more than 30 vessels. His operation employs more than 300 people. He says his fleet is worth at least $50 million in steel alone, quickly adding that he probably wouldn’t part with it for less than $80 million.
Rafael is currently railing against the lobbying effort of the smaller New England groundfishermen who he says are trying to put a cap on the amount of permits one individual can own.
“They are like mosquitoes on the balls of an elephant,” he says of the smaller operations in the port. “Biting, biting, biting, until finally [the government] is going to say fuck off, we got to do something.”
Sensing a significant shift in fishing rules before 2010, he horded fishing permits that would allow his boats to catch more product, spending $10 million on them. He now uses 57 permits to operate 15 full-time groundfish vessels called draggers and five part-time draggers. He operates the groundfish fleet at a loss—he estimates he’s losing a couple of million each year—but he’s still better off than the folks who only have less than a handful of permits.
“The maggots screaming on the sidelines, they’re done. They can scream all they want. Nobody can save them,” he says.
They’re screaming anyway. Smaller fishermen want federal regulators to change the rules, saying it unfairly benefits the large operations like Rafael. This pisses him off. Why should he be punished for his business acumen, he asks?
Complex nerd stuff
It’s all very complicated: fish stocks and quotas and scientists arguing about fish stocks and quotas.
A quick tutorial is needed, because, let’s face it, you know fuck all about the Massachusetts fishing industry. Groundfish are species such as cod and flounder. In 2010, the US federal rules for New England groundfishermen shifted from a days-at-sea scheme to a catch-share program, where members of fishery collectives can buy and sell shares of fishing quota.
Bottom line: things are bleak for the groundfishermen. Two decades ago, New Bedford had 120 vessels in its groundfish fleet. Now, that number is down to around 25. Last fall, the US Department of Commerce declared the industry to be in a state of disaster. The reasons for the crisis are debated. Some scientists say that the federal rules that dictate how much someone can catch are based on bad science. Others disagree. Rafael thinks warm winters have prompted species such as cod to go north into areas where New England fishermen don’t go.
In any event, a way of life for many is being squeezed out of existence. New Bedford’s bread and butter is scallops, but bureaucratic red tape means it is almost impossible for many groundfishermen to switch to the more lucrative industry. Rafael is almost the only one in New Bedford who has enough permits to make it worthwhile to go out and catch groundfish. But it was not always like this. He was, to steal his own phrase, a mosquito.
"Built for this country"
The first thing that strikes you about Rafael is his voice. It is deep and gravelly, worn and aged by cigarettes and five decades of life on the docks. It is an impossible mix of Azorean inflections and New England nasal. He sounds like a cartoon villain. It is with this voice that he recounts his life story; a pastiche of American dream clichés.
He emigrated to America as a teenager in 1968, after running away from the monastery where he was attending school in the Azores. He got kicked out for that stunt and so his family was forced to move. He knew if they'd stayed, there was a good chance he would be drafted to fight in the ongoing conflict in Angola. He did not know a word of English.
“I was built for this country,” he says, now.
He started out working on the waterfront as a fish cutter and rose to foreman for a seafood-distribution operation. A little later, he realized he could strike out on his own and make a killing in seafood supply and distribution. He launched his own business in 1980 and bought his first boat by 1981. Over the years his fleet grew, peaking at 46 vessels. He operated a seafood-distribution plant.
Rafael says the groundfish industry will be completely wiped out by next year. He says that only a fifth of those currently in business will still be around by the end of 2014.
Rafael, who still dresses like a fish cutter, appears unconcerned. He has weathered storms before. Fish stocks have fluctuated, federal rules have changed, but Rafael not only survives, he thrives. His 11 scallop vessels, he says, have helped “diversify the pain.”
“I’m still making money.”
"Read my lips: fuck you"
Rafael is a cutthroat capitalist who is perpetually at war with someone: regulators, competitors, environmentalists. He battles, forever with an eye on his profit margin. Of course, he also has a history of legal entanglements.
In the early 1980s, he was thrown in jail for four months and 14 days for federal tax evasion. He operated his then fledgling business through phone calls from the federal pen. Looking back, he admits he filed his taxes incorrectly. Or, more accurately, in his own words: “I had no fucking clue about that fucking shit.”
He was taken to federal court again in the mid-90s. This time he faced charges of price-fixing. He was staring down a lengthy prison term but insisted the matter go to trial. He says he was targeted by others in the industry because he was so successful and ended up spending $1.5 million on his legal defence, which was ultimately successful. He still relishes telling off the federal prosecutor after he got off. “I told him, 'You are a fucking asshole, you and the rest of the fucking motherfuckers, so fuck you, motherfucker. Read my lips: fuck you.'” It might as well be his gravestone epitaph.
He’s had other legal headaches: he was accused of falsifying documents in order to obtain fishing permits. He has fought federal regulators, sometimes successfully, when they seized a catch illegally or fined his boats without cause. His boats have been cited for fishing for scallops in a closed area. In 2011, he made national headlines when the feds seized an 881-pound tuna that one of his boats had caught. They said it was caught illegally, but Rafael disagrees. He says that single fish could have fetched hundreds of thousands of dollars on the open market. Last year, after the local fire department cited his fleet for fire safety violations along the docks, Rafael threatened to up and move his vessels to Maine or Rhode Island. He has compared federal regulators to the Gestapo. And so on and so forth.
We are walking along the pier where his fleet is docked. The grinding of power tools can be heard from one of his 120-foot, green-and-white vessels. Rafael says one of his draggers brought in 27,000 pounds of fish last night. He says that within the last ten years, his debt at one point was $35 million. He considers the future and the prospect of his business being further curtailed by federal regulators. Facing million-dollar losses and a decaying industry, he is defiantly, absurdly obstinate.
“That’ll be a fight to the death. I’ll have them doing somersaults up there. They’re fucking with the wrong guy because when I’m right, I’m right. I don’t fuck around.”
Follow Danny on Twitter: @DMacCash
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