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Battle brewing over fishery observers on smaller commercial boats

Notorious Alaska fish pirate Arne Fuglvog doesn't appear to have cast much of a shadow. Not a year has passed since the man once close to taking the job as the nation's top fisheries manager went to jail for his illegal fishing, and his cronies in the 49th state are lining up in to try to block federal rules aimed at more closely monitoring commercial fisheries that work the empty ocean off the wild coast of the 49th state.

The Petersburg Vessel Owners Association, of which Fuglvog was once president; the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association; the Alaska Trollers Association; the North Pacific Fishermen's Association; Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance; United Cook Inlet Drift Association; the United Fishermen's Marketing Association; and a bunch of others say federal plans to put fishery observers on some of the small boats working the high seas off Alaska are onerous.

"I'd have thought this whole Arne Fuglvog thing would have highlighted this (illegal fishing), and sort of been in their face like this could be a problem," said Elizabeth Mitchell of the Association for Professional Observers. But apparently not.

Putting heat on politicians 

With the National Marine Fisheries Service gearing up to put observers on some boats under 60 feet to monitor catches starting on Jan. 1, commercial fishing interests are demanding that Alaska's political leaders  -- who love to beat on the Feds -- do something. They complain the federal observer program will cost too much, won't work and is unnecessary. They argue the 1,300 boats in the state's small boat fleet lack the fishing horsepower to do serious damage to resources.

Federal biologists aren't so sure. They'd like to know more about not only the small boat catch, but the bycatch -- the other fish, marine mammals and seabirds fishermen haul in but then toss back. With North Pacific halibut in a dramatic and unexplained decline, questions have been raised about the halibut bycatch in the sablefish fleet, and the condition of under-32 inch halibut thrown back.

Commercial fishermen are required to release halibut to small to keep alive, but questions have come up about whether they are taking adequate steps to do so in the rush to land marketable fish. Putting observers on the biggest of the small boats might begin to provide some answers . Boats under 40 feet would continue to roam the seas unfettered, which is how Fuglvog got in trouble.

Advocates for better regulated fisheries have argued for at least making those boats part of the federal Vessel Monitoring System that tracks ships at sea. Mitchell said that alone might have caught Fuglvog, but fishermen have fought that idea. Fishermen and Alaska state House Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, called it an "invasion of privacy." Thomas was a powerful member of the House when he made that argument back in 2007. He is now out of that job. He lost a nail biter of an election to Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins from Sitka, who Thomas promptly called an "a-hole" before accusing voters of committing "hari-kari" and demanding a recount. Thomas lost the recount, too.

But he did do a good job demonstrating the attitudes of some of the characters involved in the Alaska commercial fishing business, as did Fuglvog.

The 48-year-old former aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and one-time member of the rule-setting North Pacific Fishery Management Council, had a permit to catch 30,000 pounds of sablefish in the "Western Yakutat" district of the Gulf of Alaska in 2005, according to federal prosecutors. He caught 63,000 pounds.

He covered up his overfishing by reporting he'd caught half the catch in the "Central Gulf" district. The reportorial sleight-of-hand, according to federal prosecutors, netted him an extra $100,000.

Exactly how long Fuglvog was engaged in this shady practice is unknown. He negotiating a plea deal with the U.S. Attorney's Office that made other accusations go away in exchange for his pleading guilty to a single, misdemeanor violation of the Lacey Act. How many other commercial fishermen act like Fuglvog is unknown, though he has since his conviction helped convict at least one other violator

Some commercial fishermen struggling

Federal regulators say fishermen like Fuglvog at worst steal public resources and endanger fish stocks with overfishing, and at best corrupt the data necessary to manage the fisheries for maximum yield. The same federal officials believe an expanded observer program would help put an end to some of these problems.

Yes, agree some commercial fishermen and processors, but at what cost? Some of the fishermen are already struggling because that North Pacific halibut population that has declined dramatically for unknown reasons. And now, they say, government regulators want to hit them with a fee  -- 1.25 percent of their groundfish or halibut catch -- to spy on them while they fish.

"This is a new, big, complicated but very important program. However it needs some additional thinking, development and a solid plan with respect to the integration of electronic monitoring before it is applied to the small boat fleet," Jeff Stevens of the United Fishermen's Marketing Association told the Cordova Times. His group was one of the many that petitioned Gov. Sean Parnell; Murkowksi; Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska; and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, to help stop the new rules coming at the start of next year.

Why not electronic monitoring?

Electronic monitoring as an alternative has become their new holy grail, said Mitchell. She finds that interesting, given that Alaska fishermen fought the idea for years.

"There's been a 180 on EM,'' she said, and it came when NMFS announced it would make everything confidential. The last thing the fishing industry wants, she said, is transparency. Once NMFS said it was "making nothing available, they were all for it,'' she said. "That's what they want now.''

Fishing might be the only resource extraction industry in the Alaska over which the citizenry has no oversight. Giant, multi-national oil companies have to report to the state how much oil they pull out of the ground at Prudhoe Bay. The logs that timber companies remove from the land of Alaska are accounted for down to the stick. And if the Pebble Mine ever gets going, every ounce of ore it takes out of the ground will be accounted for publicly.

But try to find out how many fish are caught by the commercial fishermen opposing Pebble. It's impossible. The state keeps that data secret, and the feds do the same with most offshore fisheries. Trawlers reveal some of their catch, but the small boat fleet in Alaska? Nada.

What the system needs, Mitchell said, is transparency, but that is what the fishing industry most opposes, although its not all the industry opposes. Fishermen basically want to operate without any regulations. Mitchell, like others, believes the system borders on corrupt.

'Totally political'

"It's totally political,'' she said. "The APO (Association of Professional Observers) had to fight to get an observer on the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) planning team. Fourteen of the 17 members were fishing industry members. In that committee, all they talk about is how to avoid observer coverage.''

Despite that, NMFS thinks it has come up with a solid plan for monitoring the fisheries. Spokeswoman Julie Speegle, in a press release, described the coming changes as a blessing for everyone. Mitchell, however, admits to being as skeptical about them as the commercial fishermen, albeit in the opposite direction.

"Right now, I don't know how it's going to work," she said "I think there's still a lot of questions out there as to how everything is going to fit together. I have confidence the observers can handle the small boats, but what might be a problem is the small boat fishermen handling the observers. How that is going to play out, we're all waiting to see.

"They expected EM to be an alternative." Electronic monitoring, she added, would be great -- if it worked.

"The scientific community, we're not there yet," she said "The state of the technology isn't there yet. EM cannot do what an observer can do. How are they going to aggregate that data?' How are they going to aggregate film?"

And what is going to be done to prevent someone from simply pulling the plug on a camera, or claiming it was knocked out in a storm, she wondered.

'All very iffy'

"I just don't trust it right now," she said "I don't know at what point we can prevent it from being manipulated. How can you tell if a malfunction is intentional or unintentional. It's all very iffy."

There have been talks, she said, about fines for fishermen whose EM goes dark, but in some cases it might make good business sense for a fishermen to turn it off, eat the fine, and go on fishing illegally. Fuglvog's pirate fishing, in just the one case cited by the U.S. Attorney's Office, netted him a $100,000 fine. Against that, what's a $1,000 fine -- or even a $5,000 fine?

"Here's an example," she said. "You've got an observer on board or you've got a camera. Which is more easy to deal with in terms of getting away with something? It's a lot harder to throw an observer overboard. That's a very extreme example."

On the other hand, tossing a camera, she said, could "just become a cost of doing business. That's what I'm afraid of." Although she also admits she's a little worried about an observer getting tossed overboard, too -- given the way some Alaska fishermen talk about their boats being too small.

"The main thing we're concerned about . . . is that there's going to be increased cases of (obsever) harassment," she said.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com