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Why Fuglvog matters to America

Craig Medred

Many in Alaska would like to believe the outlaw Arne Fuglvog -- an aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, this week exposed as a fish pirate -- is an aberration. Since statehood in 1959, residents have prided themselves on the management of complex, mixed-stock Alaska fisheries. A large part of the drive for statehood, in fact, hinged on the myth that incompetent federal biologists and fish traps owned by wealthy and powerful Seattle interests had devastated the fisheries of the Alaska Territory.

The reality was somewhat more complex. Climate played a key role in a major downturn in Alaska salmon runs for a couple decades from the 1950s into the 1970s. Even with the traps gone, salmon runs remained low into the 1970s when the young state developed what would become a new, national model for fisheries management, after voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed for passage of what was called the "Limited Entry Act.''

The act capped the number of salmon fishermen in Alaska. By limiting competition, the act boosted a lot of fishermen from the edge of poverty to wealth or near to it. But that was not the real intent.

The real intent was to make commercial fishermen a class of professionals interested in the long-term health of the resources supporting them. Limited entry was widely praised, a shining path, as Alaska salmon harvests climbed from about 25 million fish per year when it was enacted in 1975 to more than 200 million fish per year two decades later. Climate changes that helped boost salmon numbers were largely ignored. Overlooked, too, were the management efforts of Alaska Department and Fish and Game biologists, who'd sometimes had their lives threatened by fishermen told they couldn't fish because runs needed to be protected.

Instead there arose the myth of the frugal fishermen working with scientists to carefully manage state fisheries. That myth fueled a drive for limited entry in more Alaska fisheries, both inshore and off. Herring, crab, halibut and sablefish were all limited. There was opposition to some of this, but it was pushed back.

Clarence Pautzke, the former executive director of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, praised that federal body for its "courage'' in following the state's lead in salmon management by imposing a form of limited entry -- individual fishing quotas or IFQs -- in federal fisheries off Alaska's coast.

Preaching the quota system while abusing it

Born and reared in a fishing family in the Southeast Alaska community of Petersburg, where fishing is king, Arne Fuglvog was one of the many vocal backers of the IFQ concept, which basically gave fishermen an ownership interest in the fisheries. In a 2002 interview with Habitat Media, he praised Individual Transferable Quotas, an IFQ variant.

Implemented by the federal government to limit the number of fishermen pursuing halibut and sablefish, ITQs were "the biggest positive ... in regards to the conservation of the resource," Fuglvog said. "We were exceeding the TAC (total allowable catch) fairly regularly, even for halibut, more so for sable fish than halibut. But since ITQs, we have not exceeded the TAC in any area, even once."

What Fuglvog didn't tell Habitat Media at the time was that he was, federal officials now charge, regularly and secretly engaged in ripping off the very management system of which he spoke so highly.

The management system itself was and is pretty simple. For sablefish, for instance, scientists divide the Gulf of Alaska into five fishing zones stretching from the Aleutian Islands in the west to the Panhandle in the east. The scientists then calculate the biomass of each zone, determine how many pounds of fish can be produced in the zone each year, and set a catch limit equal to what the zone can basically grow in a season.

This catch limit is then divvied up between the relatively small number of fishermen holding fishing quotas.

The key to the system working rests in fishermen sticking to their zones and staying within their quotas.

Fuglvog has now confessed that he didn't.

A once powerful player on the regulation-setting North Pacific Fishery Management Council himself, a former president of the politically powerful Petersburg Vessel Owners Association (which recently helped boost a former Petersburg resident to the head of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game), National Fisherman Magazine "Highliner of the Year'' in 2003, and eventually an influential fisheries aide to Murkowski, Arne Fuglvog has admitted to federal prosecutors he didn't play by the rules.

Fuglvog caught more than his quota share. Fuglvog fished in one zone and reported the catch as having come from another.

The illegal fishing netted him more than $100,000, it is being reported. How much more he actually caught illegally -- and profited from -- is unknown.

Fuglvog's transgressions might, on their face, seem relatively minor, too. So he killed a bunch of white-fleshed, bottom fish of little interest to anyone but a few commercial fishermen. It's not like Fuglvog massacred a school of king salmon prized by everyone in the state.

Abuse of the public trust at industry's pinnacle

But the issue here is not just the dead fish. Fuglvog might have driven a stake into the heart of how some Alaska fisheries are managed.

Federal prosecutors and courts are certainly taking his actions seriously enough that Fuglvog is preparing to plead guilty in exchange for only 10 months in jail and a $150,000 fine. It's serious business, and John Sackton, editor of the website Seafood News, argues it should be.

Sackton's view is that Fuglvog's behavior threatens a resource-management structure built almost wholly on trust that fishermen will play by the rules. If a member of the prestigious North Pacific council, a man like Fuglvog, can't be trusted to do that, who can?

Gunnar Knapp, an economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage who has studied the Alaska fishing business for years, Thursday noted an almost visceral negative reaction to the Fuglvog case among commercial fishermen. Many of them appear to share Sackton's views.

The thinking, Knapp said, goes like this: "You're not just breaking the rules, you're cheating the whole system.

"When something like this is done by someone on the Council, it is deeply distressing," Knapp added. "It's a real violation."

It might be even more than that, though. It raises a question as to whether there is a fungus on the root of the entire quota system, a system the National Marine Fisheries Council has been proselytizing for all of America's coasts. Fuglvog was a strong advocate for this system, and only a year ago it appeared he might be on the verge of moving from Murkowki's office to leadership of the NMFS.

"Do you think ITQs are helping to encourage a better sense of stewardship?" Fuglvog was asked in the 2002 Habitat Media interview.

"Absolutely," he replied. "I think one way to look at it is, I have a 25-year loan and for the 25 years I am going to be paying off that loan from my revenues from IFQ fishing. I want that fishery to be around at least during that time."

Of course, there is also another way to look at it. If the monthly payment on the loan is due and you don't have any money, there's only one way a fisherman can easily make some: Go fishing wherever and however, because if you lose the boat to non-payment this season the next season really doesn't matter, let alone those after.

And as Fuglvog's years of quota cheating illustrate, it's gotten a lot easier for fishermen to cheat since the system was instituted to make their lives safer and more profitable.

A few hundred boats now fan out across a vast ocean during a fishing season that runs from March 12 to Nov. 18. The boats can be difficult to find, let alone police. Processors keep track of how many fish are landed, but the fishermen are expected to self-report where the fish came from. Fuglvog is reputed to have lied about where his catches came from for five years. The so-called derby fisheries of old -- which lasted for only days before quotas of halibut and sablefish were reached -- might have been more dangerous for the fishermen involved, but they were a lot easier for fisheries managers to police.

All of which leaves a hard-to-ignore question tagging along behind the outlaw Arne Fuglvog. If a smart and talented commercial fishermen who can see the wisdom of maintaining strong fisheries far into the future can't find it within himself to play by the new rules, who can count on the fisherman who largely only cares about making more money today?

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com