ROTTEN – The Future of the New England Fishing Industry

Highlighted in Six-Part Netflix Documentary



The reality that has
transformed much of
the food supplies in
the U.S. is laid bare.


The New England groundfish industry has been front-page news for decades. The latest installment has been the conviction of New Bedford’s self-described Codfather, Carlos Rafael. Rafael owned the largest fleet of vessels and permits, not just in the wealthiest fishing port in the U.S., but in all of the U.S. Rafael was convicted of falsifying federally required landings reports, income tax evasion and money laundering.

Rafael was a big catch for federal regulators. However, under this rock there was other evidence crawling around. While there was news regarding weakened groundfish stocks, the difficulty fishermen were having with keeping their lifelong fishing businesses profitable, and the commonly known disputes between fishermen and regulators, an unprecedented shift in fishing rights was being engineered under the guise of saving the fish.

In the documentary series “Rotten,” the reality that has transformed much of the food supplies in the U.S. and other parts of the world is laid bare. Each of the first five parts focuses on food such as chicken or honey and how production, ownership and quality have changed. The 6th part is about fish and in particular fishing in New England. Background coverage of the current status of fishing in New England goes back to late 1940s and to the foreign factory ships just beyond the 12-mile limit overfishing the Gulf of Maine. Then there was the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1976, which coincided with the 12-mile federal limit being extended out to 200 miles, creating what is known as an Exclusive Economic Zone. Most of the rest of the world under UN actions have the same EEZ policy.

That 1976 act fostered low-to no-interest federal loans to finance construction of larger more powerful vessels to harvest the fish that foreign vessels were no longer taking. Policy-makers at the time described the U.S. fisheries resource as boundless. Twenty years later came the first wake-up call.

What was obvious to elder fishermen and many others at the time was lost on consolidation advocates. Rather than go to the fishermen and technology that enabled the fishery resource to be fished sustainably for thousands of years, finance lobbyists and bankers were allowed to drive the bus. Bigger fishing vessels and heavier gear increased the bycatch some fish lived on and beat up the habitat that most fish lived in. A lot of fishermen, the”old guys”, predicted this.


The other criminals in
the “Rotten” documentary
are those dressed in
sheep’s clothing.


Management’s solution, driven by lobbyists it must be said, was to decrease the number of boats in the water—not the ship size federal models, but the lower impact small vessels that were and remain part of the solution. The big vessels are part of the industrialization of the industry and the commodification of a constantly renewing multi-billion-dollar-per-year resource through privatizing ownership and tradability of fish quota in the “catch shares” program.

No one can guarantee a vessel will catch the fish it is allowed to catch. But owning quota guarantees, year after year, that quota has a dollar vaule and can be taken out of the ocean by the fisherman or company leasing the right to harvest that particular quota for a particular season. As the regulation stands, any one owner could own all the quota in New England.

Carlos Rafael delivered evidence of that fact. For that, he was not prosecuted. Being fraudulently greedy and verbally sloppy were his crimes.

The other criminals in the “Rotten” documentary are those dressed in sheep’s clothing. According to fishermen interviewed they are the front men pulling the public fish resource out of the hands of the public for those who would enclose the EEZ for the use of Wall Street investors. They are described as having infiltrated the management process over decades, wielding lawsuits to move federal management motion by motion toward their goal.

Fishermen who pay to lease the right to fish quota a year at a time. shoulder the risk that the fish caught will bring a market price higher than the price paid for the quota. That is the message fishermen in the documentary are delivering.

The health hazards this food system has helped create with one of the historically healthiest of foods, is another chapter in the Rotten story.

International industrial fishing operations are pouring all kinds of fish and sea “food” products into the U.S. Industrial fishing practices require the use of chemicals, freezing, thawing and refreezing, and repackaging in a system that lacks sourcing and accountability. Virtually none of the fish imported into the U.S. is monitored or inspected. “Rotten” links the decline in the reliability of quality and safety of some seafood available on the U.S. market to global privatization and industrialization of fishing.

The consequences of consolidation now happening in the U.S. has already played out in Norway. Fishing has long been a mainstay of the Norwegian economy. The catch shares program in Norway has shifted all of Norway’s fish quota into the hands of five corporations. The fishermen in the documentary charge the Environmental Defense Fund with playing for the public the role of savior of the fish to garner the public’s contributions and sanctions, while being privatizer of the taxpayers’ public resources for their foundation and Wall Street handlers. EDF’s political influence being demonstrated by getting their former Vice Chairman, Jane Lubchenco appointed the Administrator of NOAA. Something is rotten in the state of the Union.

» Watch the official trailer for ROTTEN documentary, Fishing–Part 6