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Crime & Courts

Kodiak fisherman agrees to pay $1 million fine, spend year in prison over false halibut, sablefish reports

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: August 22, 2020
  • Published August 22, 2020

A 46-year-old commercial fisherman from Kodiak has agreed to spend a year in prison and pay a $1 million fine in a plea deal on federal charges he lied about where he caught halibut and sablefish worth millions.

James Aaron Stevens submitted false records for 26 fishing trips from 2014 to 2017 during which he harvested more than 903,000 pounds of fish with a total approximate dock value of more than $4.5 million and an approximate market value of more than $13.5 million, according to a federal indictment filed Friday.

Stevens has a change of plea hearing scheduled for Sept. 21, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Anchorage. His sentence is not final until then.

His attorney, with the federal public defender’s agency, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Several similar cases in Alaska waters have involved fishermen who lied about the location of their catches to save time or avoid the logistical hassle of relocating vessel and gear. Some say the cases illustrate the limits of Alaska’s fishing quota system, which hinges on fishermen staying within certain zones.

Federal prosecutors accused Stevens of providing false information about where he was fishing in logbooks for the International Pacific Halibut Commission, IFQ landing reports and Alaska Department of Fish and Game tickets.

Stevens changed reports to show that fishing gear had been deployed in areas where his vessels the Alaskan Star and Southern Seas did not fish, and omitted areas in which the fish were actually harvested, prosecutors say. In addition to his falsified logbooks, the investigation revealed Stevens maintained accurate information in a separate, personal log.

Stevens pleaded guilty to one felony count of false labeling under the federal Lacey Act -- it addresses illegal trade in fish, wildlife or plants -- or knowingly submitting false records concerning the locations and regulatory areas where fish were harvested, prosecutors say. He fished in waters including the Gulf of Alaska and near Yakutat under the individual fishing quota system.

A conviction can bring a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a maximum fine of no more than twice the revenue grossed from an offense, and a maximum of three years supervised release.

According to a plea agreement filed in U.S. District Court, Stevens agreed to a “no less than a year and a day” prison sentence and the fine as well as federal monitoring of any fishing vessel he owns or operates. He also agreed to make “a public service announcement acknowledging his wrongdoing” in National Fisherman Magazine and to do 80 hours of community service.

The case is partly similar to that against Arne Fuglvog, a former fisheries aide to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. While working as a commercial fisherman in 2005, Fuglvog took more than twice the sablefish his permits allowed, according to court records. He then falsified reports to cover up the take, stating that the fish had instead been harvested from another area.

Fuglvog told authorities he cut corners to save time. He served time in prison and was ordered to pay a fine.

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