NEW YORK -- After months of delays, the historic Fulton Fish Market wants to depart lower Manhattan for a gleaming refrigerated hub in the Bronx.
But the move could be held up because a judge yesterday blocked the nation's largest wholesale fish market from relocating after hearing assertions of the possibility of Mafia infiltration.
State Supreme Court Justice Carol Edmead extended a restraining order blocking fishmongers from taking over unloading duties at the market.
In the 1990s, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared major progress in loosening the mob's grip on the fish business, but now some of his former aides are charging that Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration is undoing that work.
Edmead ruled in a lawsuit filed earlier this month on behalf of a private firm locked in a business dispute with the city, former Giuliani chief of staff Randy Mastro, and former deputy mayor Rudy Washington. They allege that Bloomberg is letting mob-tainted fish sellers take over the vital fish unloading business at the new market in the Bronx.
''What's at risk here is that reforms that have worked so well to keep organized crime at bay are now being abandoned," said Mastro, now an attorney for Laro Service Systems, the firm that is fighting the city to preserve its exclusive contract.
The city dismisses the allegations about its plan to allow a cooperative of major fish wholesalers to move into the unloading business.
But Edmead appeared receptive to assertions that a change in how fish are unloaded could give the mob a toehold in the new location.
''The appearance of impropriety is so overwhelming," she said. ''I hate to use this analogy, but the fish is smelling."
With hundreds of employees and more than $1 billion a year in sales, the market -- which has been in business for more than 180 years -- is a major part of the Bloomberg administration's plans to revitalize neglected areas of the city.
For now, the market remains one of the increasingly rare vestiges of working-class Manhattan. The asphalt still glistens with fishy slush as forklifts zip down South Street. Gray sole and red snapper stare up at FDR Drive from wet cardboard boxes packed with melting ice.
The administration hopes moving the smelly, some say unsanitary, facility to the Bronx will boost both the Bronx and the lagging blocks in and around the South Street Seaport, a lower Manhattan tourist attraction.
The business of unloading iced fish from the streams of trucks arriving at the fish market has been a prime mob target because gangsters can use it to extort payments for faster deliveries in a business where freshness is everything.
In 1995, Giuliani threw out six fish unloading companies with alleged mob ties in favor of Laro, a maintenance company with no fish market experience.
City attorneys now say years of close oversight have shown that the market's wholesalers are qualified to work in the unloading business. The wholesalers say that by taking over the unloading in place of Laro they can bring down spiraling costs and consumer prices.
However, a judge granted Laro a temporary restraining order that could further slow the market's move to the Bronx, which was planned for July but held up by construction problems.
The city and wholesalers were to try to get the order lifted at a hearing yesterday.
Laro and Mastro claim some of the wholesalers in charge of the cooperative have criminal records or family ties to organized crime. The wholesalers say Laro is throwing around baseless charges to protect its monopoly.
Fish company owner Herbert Slavin, 75, called the Laro lawsuit baseless. ''Don't believe it. Whatever they're saying is not true," he said Wednesday as Chinatown store owners examined rows of snapper and sea bass. ''There's no mob here for 20, 25 years."