U.S. Representative William Keating recently met with new NOAA Regional Administrator Michael Pentony, and the congressman said he's optimistic that the Sector IX groundfishing ban could soon come to an end.

"It was a great meeting," Keating said. "There's no learning curve with him in terms of what the issues are, and that's an important thing."

Keating met with Pentony on Tuesday night, just a few weeks after he was appointed the new regional administrator following the retirement of John Bullard.

"I requested, as soon as he was appointed, the opportunity to sit down with him," Keating said. "He was great. He came to (Washington) D.C., sat down, and we talked for over an hour. We talked about general issues, but I also wanted to focus on what was going on in New Bedford in particular."

The biggest issue, of course, is the groundfishing ban NOAA placed on Sector IX back in November. The ban is directly related to convicted "Codfather" Carlos Rafael, who owns 22 of the boats in Sector IX and whose illegal overfishing scheme has kept the sector from putting forth an operations plan acceptable to NOAA. Bullard said before his retirement that the ban cannot be lifted until the sector can accurately determine how much and what stocks Rafael overfished, and how the sector plans to go about making up for that number of lost fish.

Congressman Keating said his office has been in weekly contact with NOAA since the criminal proceedings against Rafael began last spring, because he said he knew then there would be repercussions that would reverberate through New Bedford and beyond.

"Their communication with us has been great," he said. "They're not going to do everything we want them to do maybe, but that communication is critical. There's things we can work on together, there are things we can create a sense of urgency on, that will get people back to work quicker when that time comes."

Keating said having Pentony as the new administrator is key to that.

"He's knowledgeable, he's been around. The good news is he doesn't need any schooling on this," Keating said of Pentony, who had been the assistant regional administrator since 2014 prior to his promotion.

Keating said when it comes to ending the ban, there are "three different playing fields all occurring at the same time."

"The first playing field is the one dealing with legal issues, and the criminal court issue, that there's still an appeal on. That has to be dealt with first," he said. "The second playing field is actually getting an operation plan for the sector. The third one being, when those ones are all resolved, what will be left is how NOAA will deal with the permits going forward."

Keating said he sees the congressional delegation's role as that of a facilitator, "looking for where there are potential roadblocks, and trying to break those down ahead of time."

"One of the things we've really focused on is trying to get a sense of urgency and cooperation between NOAA and the sector, and in getting that operation plan in place," Keating said. "Because we don't have control over the timetable of the court and what's happening legally, but we don have control over that second part, and we want to make sure we're speeding up this process as much as we can."

Still, Keating is optimistic a resolution will come soon.

"They're moving forward. Hopefully, they're getting that part we can control, which is to get that operation plan in place and approved," he said. "What we can do is urge them along that route as quickly as possible, then the courts will make their decision when they can."

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