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Former federal fisheries regulator Arne Fuglvog sentenced to prison

Lean and wearing a dark suit, Arne Fuglvog on Tuesday told a federal judge "there is no excuse" for his cheating ways when it came to fishing the Alaska waters for sablefish and halibut.

"I am truly sorry and I deeply regret misrepresenting my fishing activity," Fuglvog, 48, said in an emotional apology to the court, convicted of a single, misdemeanor violation of the Lacey Act, which combats "illegal" trafficking in wildlife, fish, and plants.

In August, a plea deal Fuglvog had struck with federal prosecutors called for him to serve a 10-month sentence for years of lying about how much fish he caught and where he caught them. At the time, he was working as a fisheries aide to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a job he'd held since September 2006. The day before the charges against him became public, a disgraced Fuglvog walked away from his congressional position.

In the seven months since, prosecutors softened their demands for consequences against the man who admitted breaking the very laws he was once helped shape. Before joining Murkowski's staff, Fuglvog served on the regulation-setting North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Among the rules set by the council are those that Fuglvog turned around and broke in what he now calls "a grand misjudgment."

U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland pressed the government to explain more fully why it was so eager to agree to a lower sentence and side with the recommendations of Fuglvog's defense lawyer, but prosecutors kept the details to a minimum. Fuglvog's cooperation involves an ongoing case, something they didn't want to discuss. They would say only that Fuglvog had fully debriefed them on "others doing similar actions" and that he was in a position to make the case against other people.

Only one former fishing associate of Fuglvog's -- Freddie Joe Hankins of Oregon -- is currently charged with similar crimes.

But Fuglvog, who comes from a tight-knit fishing community in Southeast Alaska, doesn't see himself as a snitch.

"That's not what's going on here," said his attorney Jeffrey Feldman. Agreeing to work with the feds and trying to do what's necessary to make things right was a "very painful decision" for his client, he said, referring to the difficulty of sharing information about people you know and like.

While working as a commercial fisherman in 2005, Fuglvog took 63,000 pounds of sablefish from an area near Yakutat, more than twice what his permits allowed, according to court records. After overfishing, Fuglvog falsified reports to cover up the take, stating that the fish had instead been harvested from an area known as the Central Gulf (of Alaska). Prosecutors have said Fuglvog went on to sell the catch for about $100,000. But they estimate Fuglvog's total take, spanning years from falsely reported fish, was closer to $1 million.

More than financial gain, Fuglvog has said the reason he cut corners while fishing was to save time, something he needed more of to keep up with his duties on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. But in the fishing industry as with elsewhere, time is money, something prosecutors were quick to point out.

In the end, observed Judge Holland, Fuglvog's time-saving motives proved costly because he lost so much. He's ruined his fishing career and there is little hope he'll ever have anything to do with fishing or fish management again.

The harm Fuglvog caused isn't as much financial or environmental -- he didn't make a killing and there are still plenty of fish to catch -- as it is offensive to public trust. At the time of his crime, Fuglvog was violating the very laws he was charged with enforcing.

"The really serious damage that has been done here is to the public's confidence and integrity of the North Pacific Fishery Management System," Holland said.

In addition to spending five months in prison, Fuglvog must pay a $50,000 fine and send another $100,000 -- approximately the amount he profited by illegal fishing -- to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for enhancing fisheries in the coastal areas of the Gulf of Alaska. He must also admit his wrongdoings in an announcement in National Fisherman Magazine.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com