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Residency issue snags sport fishing candidate for halibut commission

Craig Medred
Courtesy Tom Ohaus

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series examining how fishing guide Tom Ohaus of Sitka was charged with illegally obtaining Alaska fishing licenses.  Ohaus was considered a strong candidate to become the only sport fisherman on the International Pacific Halibut Commission before being charged. Read part 2 here.

When Alaska fishing guide Tom Ohaus refinanced his stateside home in 2004, buried in the stack of papers he signed was a "homestead exemption" agreement. Little did the self-proclaimed Sitka resident know the grief that piece of paper would come to cause him in the 49th state.

On May 25, Alaska State Troopers charged Ohaus with five counts of illegally obtaining state resident fishing licenses. They say he ceased to be an Alaska resident and became a non-resident when he accepted the benefits of that homestead exemption in Massachusetts. The false-statement charges are misdemeanors and might not be considered a big deal, but they were lodged just as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began vetting Ohaus for a seat on the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC).

The commission, a U.S.-Canada treaty organization, sets halibut catch limits for the Pacific Ocean. Ohaus was thought to have a good chance of becoming the first sport fisherman ever named to an organization traditionally dominated by commercial fishing interests. Ohaus holds a fisheries science degree from the University of Washington. His nomination to the IPHC was backed by the state's most influential sport-fishing organizations. And he reportedly had solid political connections on the East Coast, connections willing to put a good word in for him with NOAA.

'Awfully convenient'

It didn't hurt that he's a 59-year-old card-carrying Democrat, and NOAA is an organization now working under a Democratic administration. Alaska is, on the other hand, steadfastly Republican, and some in the sport-fishing fishing community have questioned whether that had anything to do with Trooper Tim Hall's decision to dig deep into Ohaus's bi-coastal lifestyle to charge him with the five misdemeanors.

"It's awfully convenient,'' said Heath Hilyard, executive director of the SouthEast Alaska Guides Organization. "Why didn't this come up last year, or why didn't this come up six months ago?''

Ohaus has now apparently withdrawn his name for the IPHC seat reserved for someone from Alaska.  Hall's affidavit says the trooper "on 5/23 received a copy of a letter Ohaus sent to Dr. Jim Balsinger (Alaska's NOAA chief) asking that his IPHC nomination be considered on the terms of a non-resident rather than a resident. In the letter Ohaus states, 'Upon reviewing a number of legal definitions, in light of personal/family obligations, I am unable to commit indefinite presence in the state of Alaska for the next several years.''

NOAA Alaska spokeswoman Julie Speegle refused to release Ohaus' application, but said she would forward a request to the agency's Freedom of Information Act office. Meanwhile, Ohaus has already been taking a beating on commercial fishing blogs. The charges filed against him led the Southeast Alaska Seiners Association blog to label the guide "Tom Ohaus of SitkaChussetts.''

The blog went on to accuse him of "
diligently lobbying the (Alaska) Board of Fish . . . and the state legislature and the (North Pacific Fisheries Management) Council for a few years now. While we will not comment on the merits of the case or further indulge ourselves in the tit for tat that the sporties used against our forever friend, Arne Fuglvog, (in more than a few sport circles, a screw up is now called a 'fuglvog'), we are at least comforted in renaming the 'fuglvog' the 'ohaus'.

"This residency thing is a serious one and at least a few folks have spent considerable jail time over the residency issue."

Fuglvog: fish pirate

A former aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Fuglvog is the most famous fish pirate in recent Alaska history. Authorities estimate his bandit fishing netted him as much as $1 million over the years. He was this year sentenced to five months in a federal prison and fined a total of $150,000 despite commercial fishing interests on his side. 

"This situation ... is a mere blemish on Arne's otherwise perfect life that was lived to help others,'' Robert Thorstenson Jr., one of the most popular political players in the Alaska commercial fishing business, claimed in arguing for a federal judge to go easy on Fuglvog. "Indeed Arne never benefitted on single dollar. He was just trying to get to a (North Pacific Fisheries Management) meeting in a hurry to continue to help others.''

Hurrying to a council meeting was the excuse Fuglvog first used when caught illegally fishing in a closed area. However, investigators eventually concluded he'd for years been making a practice of fishing in closed areas to maximize his profits while masquerading as a conservation activist on the Council. Ohaus, too, has been a conservation activist, but there have been no charges of illegal fishing lodged against him.

What he stands accused of is possibly cheating the state of Alaska out of about $600 in license fees over the past five years. The charges themselves are petty, but in Alaska -- where non-residents are described as people from Outside,' the residency issue is taken very, very seriously.

Read part 2 here. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com