AD Main Menu

Alaska fisheries management and crony capitalism

Victor Smith
Aaron Jansen illustration

Ever since 1998, when former Sen. Ted Stevens introduced his rotten American Fisheries Act (AFA), the United Fisherman of Alaska (UFA) and their allies on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC) have been carving off for themselves the choice pieces of the fisheries resources of the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. Stevens started it by giving the extremely lucrative pollock fishery to a handful of fishing companies and, in so doing, set off a vicious "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" national stampede for privatization. Why? In large part because no restrictions were placed to keep profits from pollock from being used to dominate all the other fisheries AFA companies participated in.

Proponents of catch shares have cleverly obfuscated their greed, jealousy, and crude survival instincts with high-minded baloney like the yarn that private ownership fosters good resource stewardship. Arne Fuglvog, the UFA's and Sen. Lisa Murkowski's pick to head NMFS, recently disproved that smarmy nonsense when he got busted for criminally underreporting his own catch while simultaneously parroting that bull at the Council.

There's nothing high-minded about divvying up the loot in the Gulf; it is dirty business, and all of a sudden it looks like Murkowski and UFA were pushing a "Manchurian Candidate" to head the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In his May 2009 email to the UFA, ex-Petersburg son John Enge gave a respectful and specific heads-up that Fuglvog was a crook and his appointment to head NMFS would backfire. Now that Enge's warning has proven true, the UFA is in the unenviable position of trying to convince everyone that they didn't know what everyone knows they knew all along -- that while Fuglvog may have been a good choice for the UFA, he was a thief and a poor choice for everyone else. To cover their asses the UFA is trying to make the story all about how Enge was "not credible," and claiming "(Enge) was in the practice of writing things that were untrue and denigrating our association and our industry."

Well boo-hoo for the poor UFA. Enge never denigrated the industry, just the UFA; and they deserve it. Does anyone believe that the UFA executive board (and Murkowski) were "all surprised as anybody" and didn't know about Arne's fishery violations? Sounds like time to subpoena some hard drives because as sure as dead fish stink, the UFA knew about Fuglvog and was white-knuckling it, hoping that everyone would keep their traps shut and their puppet-on-a-string candidate would squeak through.

Here's the story the UFA doesn't want anyone to hear:

After the AFA put everything on the table, a cabal of fishing industry insiders hatched a plan to rig the game by hijacking the much-revered UFA. They realized that fishermen were perceived as Alaska's soul, and if they could steal their voice by controlling the UFA they would wield a lot of power in Alaska. It would be a twofer: fishermen in opposition could be muzzled and their apparent support could be thrown behind almost anything.

As soon as they took it over, the UFA was used to boost Frank Murkowski into the governor's office. Not even apologizing to critics who pointed out that the UFA's membership had never been polled, UFA's new executives crowed about how they had worked for more than a year behind the scenes to link arms and make deals with nearly every other business sector in Alaska to get Murkowski elected.

But the deals came with a steep price for fishermen. The UFA's first deal was to quickly defend -- again without prior membership approval -- Murkowski's scuttling of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's (ADF&G) Habitat Division, the division actually responsible for the good stewardship of the habitat of the very fish that UFA members' livelihoods depended on.

The second deal the UFA made was to back, one after the other, two rotten Murkowski picks for ADF&G Commissioner. UFA's first supported commissioner, Kevin Duffy, signed off on icing the Habitat Division with admonishments to "not look back." Duffy also gave the state's approval to Congress for the BSAI Crab plan, which gifted even more exclusive rights, this time for crab, to another handful of fishing companies.

Inexplicably, the UFA's second pick for ADF&G commissioner was McKie Campbell, a guy who had spent the bulk of his career working for the mining industry to reduce standards for mine runoff into salmon streams. And the UFA didn't just grudgingly back Campbell; members of the UFA Executive Board actually traveled the state to make a slick promotional video to tout his appointment. (Campbell now works on Sen. Lisa Murkowski's staff, as Republican staff director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.)

The third deal the UFA made was to exploit what seems to have been a crisis manufactured to bankrupt and drive half their competition out of the State. Even after dropping the price of pink salmon to 5 cents a pound (the price now is 42 cents!), fish companies claimed they were losing money on every pound of fish they bought, and half the salmon fleet was informed they would have no place to sell their fish in the 2002 season. That vicious threat of losing markets was used to bludgeon fishermen's opposition to all of the UFA's deals.

A couple of years later Rob Zuanich, the UFA executive who made the promotional video for Campbell -- the same guy who had spent so much time in Gov. Murkowski's office “managing the crisis" in the spring of 2002 -- was given a very favorable $1.2-million loan from the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to start a fish company, thereby profiting mightily from the market conditions he helped create. Like Zuanich, Fuglvog, and Campbell, everyone who's ever packed water for the UFA has been given ever more lucrative and influential positions.

That's the opposite of the fortunes for everyone else -- and by design -- because when the loot's split up, it's best split the least number of ways. That's why the fisheries council process has been one of rigged exclusion; that's the way the ersatz democratic council process works.

Unless there is a thorough fumigation, the UFA and the councils will continue stealing national fisheries treasures and fencing them off to their own little networks, just as they've been doing for the last twelve or so years. If you run a small, honest business, that won't be good for you.

Victor Smith was born in Juneau and grew up in Petersburg. He has fished commercially all over Alaska on several of his own boats, mostly for salmon and herring, and he was a founding and long-time stockholder in NorQuest Seafoods.