Ben Goldfarb has found a niche in fish. A freelancer based in New Haven, Conn., he regularly covers commercial fisheries and wildlife conservation for magazines such as Science and Boston Magazine. It’s a topic that can easily get too wonky for mainstream readers. So when he heard scuttlebutt about the indictment of a New England fishing mogul known as “The Codfather,” he knew he’d caught a big one.
“There was an affidavit in the case that resembles a Mario Puzo novel.”
“It’s incumbent upon fish journalists to find really powerful characters who can carry these otherwise very abstruse stories,” he said.
Portuguese-born Carlos Rafael had amassed tens of millions of dollars trading in cod, haddock and scallops. Then in 2015, he unwittingly admitted to an undercover IRS agent that he was defrauding the government by selling thousands of pounds of fish under the table and underreporting his catch.
He was indicted in May 2016 on 27 counts of fraud, among other charges. He pleaded guilty this spring, right after Mother Jones ran Goldfarb’s story, which was funded by the nonprofit news organization Food & Environment Reporting Network.
It’s a good example of how an eye-catching narrative can be used to tell a policy story. And of how having a beat — especially an obscure one — can help you jump on stories that resonate nationally.
I talked to Goldfarb about the story; his answers are below, edited for clarity and flow.
Your first sentence is: “The fake Russians met the Codfather on June 3, 2015, at an inconspicuous warehouse on South Front Street in New Bedford, Massachusetts.” Why did you start here?
I was trying to find a way into a story that was ultimately going to be pretty policy-dense and technical. Especially at a time when the influence of Russia on our politics is such a ubiquitous question, I liked the idea of getting Russia in right at the top and drawing in some of the politically conscious people who wouldn’t ordinarily gravitate toward a story about fish and fisheries. I was trying to blend the crime caper with the policy stuff, and the former definitely seemed like the place to begin.
You then did three paragraphs of background before getting back to the scene. You covered everything from the size of the seafood industry in New Bedford, Mass., to Rafael’s childhood. Why interrupt the narrative to zoom out so much?
I wanted to further establish Carlos’s character. He certainly comes across as a villain, but he’s also a pretty complicated individual. In many ways, he represents the American Dream. He arrived here as in immigrant and worked incredibly hard, had this incredible business acumen and built a gigantic fishing empire. In some ways, he’s an admirable figure. There are plenty of people in New Bedford who idolized the guy. It was important to me that he not come across as a one-dimensional villain, and I felt like explaining his backstory and how remarkable his accomplishments were was a good way of arriving that. Honestly, I wish I had room for more of that. And when you walk around New Bedford, you can feel the weight of New England’s maritime history. The streets are made of cobblestone, there are whaling museums, and you can hear Portuguese spoken. It’s a town in which history is so palpable, and I wanted to communicate that in some way. I wanted to cast Carlos as a successor in this really long line of fisherman. In some ways, that history dictates the entire story. It’s this long history of unchecked overfishing that got us to where we are today.
Did you get to talk to Rafael? If not, how did you report personal details about him, including his history and net worth?
He wasn’t doing interviews with anybody. And people in regulatory agencies were pretty clammed up because it was an ongoing investigation. But Carlos was a very public figure — this brash, outspoken, funny, incredibly quotable guy. He was very much on the record over the years, and there had been several local profiles written about him. He’d also participated in an oral history project the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did with local fisherman. That had a huge amount of background about his journey to America. There were many details that didn’t make it into the story, like he wanted to be a priest as a child and worked in a sausage factory as a 14-year-old.
“It’s incumbent upon fish journalists to find really powerful characters who can carry these otherwise very abstruse stories.”
He also had a pretty voluminous paper trail. There was an affidavit in the case that resembles a Mario Puzo novel. The net worth was in there, and it had so much detail about how his whole scheme worked. One of the interesting mysteries of this story for me is why, when the fake Russians arrived at his warehouse, he immediately spilled his guts to them. He told them the entire operation of this fraud probably 10 minutes after meeting them. In talking to other fisherman, one thing that becomes clear about Carlos is that he likes people to know how smart and shrewd and cunning he is. He came across as a very proud man, and one of the things he was proud of was his ability to slip through the cracks of this regulatory system.
You zoom out from the Codfather’s narrative to broader issues, particularly consolidation in the fishing industry and the role of regulation in that. Was that always part of your vision for the story?
There’d been a lot of local stories written about Carlos, but there hadn’t really been anything about how he fit into the bigger picture. I wanted to connect Carlos to the story of a fisheries management system called catch shares, which has swept all over the world and created winners and losers across the fishing industry. If policymakers don’t take steps to mitigate the social impacts of catch shares, we could end up elsewhere with a situation like New England: one big player and smaller fisheries struggling to survive. To me that was the fascination of this story: the ways in which Carlos Rafael was emblematic of bigger changes affecting fisheries around the world and ultimately influencing who it is that brings you your fish. We’re well-connected to where our produce comes from, but we don’t think very much about the provenance of our seafood.
How did you think about making the policy angle interesting to the average reader?
At the end of the day, you have to give this stuff a human face. Obviously, Carlos was a good way of accomplishing that, but there were other fishermen who’d been involved in this process and affected by it. If Carlos was the winner, these guys were the losers. Even if people don’t quite understand how all the policy stuff works, if they come away thinking, “The big guy got bigger, and the little guys got pushed out of the game,” that’s enough for me.
Why did you decide it was the right time to publish the story? The case wasn’t over yet.
That was one thing my editors and I talked about a lot. Do we run it before it settles? Do we hope there’s a trial that will provide another great scene? But throughout the process, the dates for the trial were constantly shifting, and I’d heard from all my sources in the industry that he was going to plead guilty. We had this shifting target and decided to get it out in the world. Getting scooped was part of the fear, but ultimately there was enough to go on. The ending could be this big question: What’s going to happen now? In some ways ending with uncertainty was appropriate, because we’re in a period of total uncertainty for the industry.