U.S. Senators Demand Federal Scrutiny of Private Equity’s Incursion Into Fishing

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with The New Bedford Light. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

Three U.S. senators, including two members of a Senate subcommittee that oversees the fishing industry, are calling for greater federal scrutiny of private equity’s incursion into East Coast commercial fishing.

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, all Democrats, condemned lax government antitrust policies and weak enforcement of restrictions on foreign ownership in the fishing industry. They were responding to an investigation published July 6 by ProPublica and The New Bedford Light, which reported that companies linked to private equity firms and foreign investors now control an outsize share of the market for groundfish such as pollock, haddock and ocean perch and are pushing to expand into other parts of the industry. Under this new regime, the investigation found, labor conditions for local fishermen have deteriorated, as they work longer hours and bear a larger share of costs such as vessel maintenance.

“This alarming investigation raises serious concern about possible violations of federal law,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “A powerful foreign private equity giant has gained huge power over a vital American industry. This apparent dominance raises antitrust questions, which should be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice.” Both Blumenthal and Markey sit on a Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard.

Warren said she is dismayed that federal enforcement of a cap on foreign ownership of fishing vessels in U.S. waters largely relies on the companies’ own assurances that they are in compliance. “Predatory private equity billionaires have bought into nearly every sector of the economy, generating huge profits for insiders while leaving workers out in the cold,” Warren said. “I’m deeply concerned by this report regarding the lack of federal oversight of foreign ownership limits and that some hardworking fishermen in New Bedford are not being treated fairly.” She added, “I intend to work with federal regulators to address these issues and protect Massachusetts fishing families.”

The ProPublica/New Bedford Light investigation found that a federal regulatory system known as “catch shares,” which was adopted in 2010 to reduce overfishing, has fostered private equity’s consolidation of the industry at the expense of independent fishermen. The single largest permit holder in the New England groundfish industry is Blue Harvest Fisheries, which has rights to catch 12% of groundfish, approaching the antitrust cap of 15.5%.

Blue Harvest, which was established in 2015 by Manhattan private equity firm Bregal Partners and is based in New Bedford, Mass., owns more than 15.5% of the permitted catch for certain types of fish, but stays below the aggregate cap by owning smaller shares of other species. It boosts its market share by leasing fishing rights from other permit owners. There are no antitrust restrictions on leasing. Blue Harvest has charged captains and crew on its vessels for maintenance, electronics and wharfage fees, among other expenses. The investigation traced Blue Harvest’s ownership to a billionaire Dutch family.

Blue Harvest said in a statement that it has honored the “historically significant role that the region’s fishermen and fisherwomen play in our groundfish business” by investing more than $10 million to promote the health and welfare of employees and crew members. Overall payments to crew increased 36% over the last three years, the company said. Blue Harvest plans to launch several state-of-the-art vessels by 2024, reflecting its commitment to “setting higher standards and benchmarks for the seafood industry,” it said.

Blue Harvest added that the Coast Guard had approved its “ownership and capital structure.” The company said it “remains dedicated to acting as a responsible steward of the vitally important domestic U.S. fishing industry and actively supports regulation for the benefit of the industry at-large and the communities in which we serve.” Bregal Partners did not respond to a request for comment.

Like Warren, Markey decried foreign ownership and its effects on independent fishermen. “Our working waterfronts should work for local communities, and our laws on local ownership should be implemented and upheld, not undermined or evaded,” Markey said. He vowed to “ensure that we have a robust federal oversight system” and that “the private equity industry can’t take advantage of companies or their workers.”

A spokesperson for the head of NOAA’s fisheries division said that it would “work directly with our partners in Congress to respond to any inquiries they may have.” Michael Pentony, the division’s Northeast regional administrator, said that NOAA’s goal is to “ensure a sustainable future for our fisheries and the communities that depend on them.” He declined to address specific questions.

The current antitrust cap “fails to prevent excessive consolidation in the fishery,” said Geoff Smith, one of 18 members of the New England Fishery Management Council, which advises NOAA. “We certainly don’t believe that Blue Harvest or any other entity should be able to own excessive shares in the fishery to the detriment of fishing communities.” Other council members declined to comment or did not respond to messages, and its executive director declined to comment.

The council is considering whether to support a controversial industry-backed proposal authorizing the leasing of rights to catch scallops. Current scallop regulations allow one permit per boat, up to a total of 17 vessels, and leasing is prohibited. Many local fishermen fear that implementing the proposal would hasten consolidation and enable private equity to make the same inroads into the lucrative scallop market that it has with groundfish.

“I hope the New England Fishery Management Council recognizes that the South Coast was built on the backs of the hardworking fishing families, and that upcoming decisions reflect the respect they deserve,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Keating, a Democrat whose district includes New Bedford.

Fishermen, former regulatory officials and community activists recommended various reforms. They called for lowering the 15.5% permit cap for groundfish, for greater transparency in permit ownership and leasing, and for NOAA and the Coast Guard to enforce the American Fisheries Act, which limits foreign ownership to 25% of a U.S. fishing vessel. The Coast Guard’s National Vessel Documentation Center, which is responsible for monitoring compliance with foreign ownership restrictions, did not respond to written questions.

The way regulations are currently designed, “a handful of businesses can come in” and buy up “the entire fishery,” said Ben Martens, who heads the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. Lack of transparency in ownership and leasing “creates a murky marketplace,” he added.

Blue Harvest purchased some of its fleet and permits from New Bedford fishing magnate Carlos Rafael, known as “the Codfather,” after he pleaded guilty to 27 counts of fraud in 2017 and agreed to sell his empire.

“Rafael’s fishing days are over, but manipulation of the fishing industry is alive and well, just with fancier suits and offices and less interesting but more polished white-collar types,” Joshua Amaral, who heads a community services program in New Bedford, wrote to the Light.

Brett Tolley, who leads the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, which advocates for independent fishermen, said that the influx of private equity firms was the “inevitable outcome” of the catch shares system. “The warning signs were always there,” Tolley said. “They have become so dominant, with such influence and leverage over our local economy, that they have essentially become too big to fail.”

David Goethel, a New Hampshire fisherman who served on the New England Fishery Management Council from 2004 to 2013, said that the industry’s problems are deeply rooted.

“NOAA is afraid of what they might find once they really start rattling the whole rotten tree,” he said.

While on the council, Goethel cast the lone dissenting vote against catch shares. “We knew then that someone was going to buy up the whole fishery,” he said. “Well, now that has happened.”