NEW BEDFORD — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has approved a plan for 55 New Bedford-based fishing vessels that were ordered to halt operations to begin leasing their quota.

The vessels, formerly of Sector IX, had transferred to Sector VII in March in a strategy to lease their quota, but were ordered to cease operations until NOAA could craft a plan in response to the impact convicted "Codfather" Carlos Rafael's illegal fishing scheme had on fish stocks. Sector IX operations had been shut down in November by NOAA, as the majority of the vessels belonged to Rafael.

Congressman William Keating says as part of NOAA's mitigation plan, the fish that were not caught due to Sector IX inactivity since November will be counted towards restocking efforts, meaning fishermen will not be penalized again for Rafael's overfishing.

"That's what we wanted," said Congressman Keating. "To make sure that, starting in the next cycle, that they weren't going to have to go back and suffer because of the actions of a person that acted illegally and look at lesser amounts of quota."

In a written statement, Michael Pentony, Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region, says the organization estimated that over 700,000 pounds of fish across several different groundfish stocks were misreported by Rafael between 2012 and 2015. But most of the quota has been accounted for, says Pentony.

"Throughout the winter and spring, we worked with Sector 9 to account for and resolve these overages. We were able to resolve many of the overages by applying the Sector 9 quota remaining at the time we suspended operations last November," wrote Pentony in his statement.

Pentony says that NOAA and Sector IX have resolved and accounted for most of the overages. The only species that still has to be rebuilt is witch flounder. Pentony says an overage of 72,224 pounds of witch flounder remains for the 2018 fishing year.

NOAA is also allowing Rafael to sell the four vessels in Sector IX that were subject to forfeiture, as long as the buyer is an indepentent third party that was not involved in Rafael's illegal operations. Rafael can also sell any of his vessels in Sector VII under the same stipulation.

Congressman Keating says Thursday's announcement is welcome news for the entire New Bedford fishing industry, including ancilliary businesses that suffered as a result of Rafael's actions.

"They have, unfortunately, suffered because of his actions," said Keating. "But now, things are reconciled and we're moving forward. There's a plan moving forward. There's protections so it won't happen again moving forward."