Fuglvog Fallout

By Libby Casey

The admission this month by a Senate staffer that he’s guilty of illegal fishing in Alaska is having greater ripples than one man’s future.  Arne Fuglvog was an aide to Senator Lisa Murkowski for five years.  He was a local Petersburg fisherman who made good, and was considered a top expert in the U-S Senate on fisheries policy.  Now some of the Alaskan issues he promoted are under extra scrutiny. 

The news that Arne Fuglvog lied about where he caught fish surprised those who watch the industry.

I was actually quite stunned.

Gunnar Knapp studies the seafood industry as a professor of economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research.

At first I understood well there was some fisheries violation and those are you know fairly common, but then it turns out it was a substantial and significant fisheries violation and a jail term and so on, and it was quite a shock personally.

It’s not like Fuglvog accidentally caught a few fish over some confusing boundary.  The plea deal says he falsified records of his catches over years, and as punishment he faces 10 months in prison and $150-thousand  in penalties.  And that’s the Deal he got.  But it’s more than a staffer with a checkered past, says John Sackton, who founded Seafood-dot-com-news.

The problem is most people in Congress know nothing about fisheries.  And this is why I called Arne to be one of the most important fisheries staffers in Washington.

Fuglvog had credibility because he was a fisherman.  He was also respected on Capitol Hill for putting in long hours digging into dense policy and not getting caught up in the heady world of D-C politics.

Both he and John Sackton are supporters of the individual fishing quota or catch share systems used in Alaska’s federally managed fisheries.  Scientists set a limit of what can be caught, and fishermen get a percentage.  It’s controversial because as the fishery is divided up, there are always winners and losers.

But advocates say it’s the way to sustain fisheries – and fishermen’s livelihoods.  Here’s Arne Fuglvog on A-P-R-N three years ago, explaining why he supports catch shares.

Some might disagree with me.  Some might say, yeah, but they’re telling me you can only catch this much fish?  And before you could catch as much as you want?  And that’s really the biggest change.  But the days of just going out and fishing endlessly and catching as much as you want are gone.  They’re gone.

Except that’s what Fuglvog admits to doing – fishing what he wanted, where he wanted.

John Sackton says the blow is having one of catch share’s most visible champions busted.

Arne was in this position, he was both a fishermen and he was a public policy person, and then he went on to work for Murkowski.  So he of all people in my opinion should’ve known what repercussions were for falsifying catch records and so forth.  So I personally felt betrayed.

Sackton worries this diminishes the credibility of a unique system in which the fishermen have a say in setting policy.

If people say you can’t trust them because they’re all cheaters and crooks, it undermines the whole model of fishery management in the US.

There’s a roiling debate in the nation right now over whether Alaska’s model of catch shares should be used in other places like New England.  And legislation is expected in Congress to bar spending money on catch share programs in the Atlantic… and anywhere else for that matter – including Alaska.  Defunding oceans policy isn’t expected to get anywhere.  But it’s fights like these that concern the United Fishermen of Alaska, which represents more than 30 commercial fishing industry groups.  It supported Arne Fuglvog over the years, but now president Arni Thompson says this could do major damage.

This is a real slap in the face.  It discredits the system and actually gives fodder to those who oppose quota share systems to further request that there be no knew quota share systems. A lot of that anti quota share system activity is going on on the East Coast.

Thompson is also worried this could discourage other fishermen from stepping up and volunteering for regulatory boards and positions.

Regardless of whether or not you’re a credible, honest individual, you still come under criticism when you accept these public positions.  Also they’re very demanding, can require a lot of hours of volunteer time.  A lot of grief goes along with being a volunteer for fishing industry boards.

Economics professor Gunnar Knapp says it will be months before it’s clear whether Fuglvog’s fall will alter the debate over catch shares and fishing policy.

The implications are potentially very big but doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be very big.  It’s possible it will play out as a particular incident that people don’t necessarily generalize or assume that all fishermen are that way or reflects badly on those types of policies.  So I think we need to wait and find out, and looking back we’ll be able to see how much influence it had.  But it could have a significant affect.

Fuglvog’s plea deal includes an “addendum,” which says he could get a reduced sentence if he gives authorities information.  It’s sealed and not yet public, so who knows whether others in the fishing industry could be implicated, which would expand the ripples of influence wider.

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