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Does Alaska's Sen. Lisa Murkowski have a double standard for fish piracy?

Craig Medred
Stephen Nowers illustration

OPINION: U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has some nerve. And for that she deserves credit. Last week her media office, among the more prolific in Congress, issued a communique proclaiming: "Murkowski Warns Oceans Caucus of the 'Great Consequences' Of Illegal Fishing". 

She wasn't talking about her former fisheries aide, Arne Fuglvog, Alaska's consummate fish pirate. For those uninformed about the Fuglvog affair, here is a primer:

Arne Fuglvog, a federal fisheries regulator and commercial long liner, was ratted out by his crew for years of illegal fishing. Fuglvog hired one of the best criminal defense attorneys in Alaska -- if not the best -- entered into plea-bargain negotiations with the U.S. government, and still ended up being order to jail for 10 months. Though Fuglvog pleaded guilty to only a single misdemeanor involving some illegally caught sablefish, there are indications it was but the tip of the iceberg

Suffice to say, this is not some scofflaw caught illegally snagging salmon in Anchorage's Ship Creek. Fuglvog was a well-connected political player who masqueraded as a conservationist while pirating Alaska's marine resources. He was the one-time president of the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association, a politically powerful group that spawned Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell. He was a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the self-proclaimed "family" that runs the marine fisheries off Alaska's coast. He was picked by the United Fishermen of Alaska, one of the state's most powerful political lobbies, as the "Fishermen of the Year" in 2005.

His whole resume is available here. But the most interesting tidbit of Fuglvog's history isn't on that list of accomplishments. The resume fails to note that in 2009 Fuglvog was the prime candidate to take the job as head of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency responsible for managing all the fisheries off U.S. coasts. 

And then he wasn't.

In summer 2009, Fuglvog withdrew his name from the list of candidates for the job (officially titled as the assistant administrator for fisheries in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). "This is not about the job itself, it is just a timing issue," Fuglvog told the Gloucester Times. "I have a job to do and I want to do it to the best of my ability."

Fuglvog's job: senior legislative assistant to Murkowski, Alaska's senior senator and an influential voice in national fisheries management. At the time Fuglvog dropped out of the running for the NMFS job, little was made of the move. It was noted by a few websites and blogs that cover fisheries -- and that was about it.

But the timing of Fuglvog's withdrawal has since become a lot more interesting because of indications he was then under federal investigation for his illegal fishing activities. 

It is interesting because between his withdrawal from the NMFS job and the revelation that he'd been a long-time Alaska fish pirate, there was a historic election in Alaska, an election featuring Murkowski and Tea Party favorite Joe Miller.

Miller beat the incumbent Murkowski in the Republican primary. She was shocked. So were many, many others. Miller gloated and behaved badly afterward. Then little revelations about the weird baggage in his closet began to surface. He'd been reprimanded by his bosses at the Fairbanks North Star Borough after using coworkers' computers to vote in his own online political poll. An opponent of government handouts, he'd taken more than his share. And, of course, maybe most of all, he wanted to slash the federal budget, which would have greatly diminished the flood of federal largesse flowing north to Alaska.

All of this helped convince Murkowski to jump back into the Alaska U.S. Senate race as a write-in candidate. Fuglvog, who had months earlier pulled his NMFS job application, remained on her staff all this time. There were, by then, some in the Miller camp convinced Murkowski had a fish pirate working for her, and that it was all being covered up. 

As it turned out, they were right about the former. As to the latter, no one is quite sure. 

Murkowski has refused to talk about exactly what she knew or, more importantly, exactly when she knew it. Fuglvog lawyer Jeff Feldman has refused to even say when Fuglvog became aware he was under investigation. The aide's legal problems didn't become public knowledge until late summer, but it came out then that he'd signed a plea agreement with the government months earlier, back in April.

Plea agreements usually don't happen overnight. They come after negotiations between prosecutors and defense attorneys, sometimes after lengthy negotiations. 

Murkowski did tell the Anchorage Daily News "that she had no idea for three months that her fisheries adviser had signed a plea deal'' with the Feds, but she was evasive about what she knew before that. She suggested she might have heard something in December 2010 or January 2011, but added of Fuglvog: "I can't imagine you would go into that process if in fact you knew that you had these allegations over your head."

Left hanging was the possibility Fuglvog went into the process and then found out what was over his head. What Murkowski asked him after he withdrew from that process -- if, indeed, she asked -- is unknown. What Fuglvog told her about withdrawing is equally unknown. It is, however, hard to believe there wasn't some discussion. Fuglvog clearly had Murkowski's support when he went for the job. It's a little much to believe she wouldn't want to know why her choice for the most important federal fisheries job related to Alaska had changed his mind.

All of which has left dangling the question of when Fuglvog knew he'd been nabbed and when he told his boss about his problems. Murkowski has tried to act as if all of this is just old news that should be tossed in the dustbin of history. She issued a statement in the summer saying:

Prior to joining my staff, Arne Fuglvog violated a fishing regulation by misstating the location where he caught sablefish. I accepted his resignation Sunday, and he will plead guilty to this charge as part of a plea agreement. Arne served Alaskans for the past 5 years on my staff and for over a decade before that in his public service work in fisheries. I thank him for his years of service, but he knows the importance and value of our fisheries, and he also knows what all fishermen understand: fishing laws and regulations must be followed. Arne has cooperated fully with the authorities, taken responsibility for his actions, and accepted the consequences.

Murkowski spokesperson Matthew Felling said then the Republican senator would not comment further. She hasn't said much since.

And now, suddenly, she's out there worrying about fish pirates.

Only they aren't American fish pirates like her old aide Fuglvog. Instead, Murkowski is worried about foreign fish pirates.

"When we have illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing that goes on, we can see great consequences when we do not have the rules in place and when we do not have a level of enforcement," Murkowski was quoted telling her Senate colleagues last week.

"Sen. Murkowski is a lead co-sponsor of the Pirate Fishing Elimination Act, legislation associated with a NOAA/Dept. of State upcoming treaty to require stronger controls on vessels carrying fish into the world's ports," the media release continues. "This bill would also demand strict enforcement including denial of port access for vessels listed for IUU fishing.

'Whether it's from an economic perspective, a jobs perspective or from an enforcement perspective we have a great deal of work to do ...'"

There was some work to be done back in 2007, too. That was the year the federal government proposed bringing Alaska long-line vessels -- the kind of boats skippered by the good pirate Arne Fuglvog -- into the Alaska Vessel Monitoring System. VMS tracks vessels by satellite. A pirate like Fuglvog would have been caught by a VMS transponder on his boat, alerting authorities to the fact he wasn't fishing where he claimed to be fishing.

But longliners fought the program.

Commercial fisherman Bill Thomas from Haines, a Republican state representative and Murkowski supporter called VMS an "onerous U.S. Coast Guard requirement. … While it might make for efficient policing of a scofflaw or help ensure that fishermen don't venture into waters closed to protect Steller sea lions, it is not appropriate for the average Alaska fisherman for several good reasons. First, the device costs about $3,000 per vessel."

At today's prices, that would have set a commercial long liner back about 500 pounds of halibut. That's a couple really nice fish.

But the long liners never had to pay. Political pressures killed the VMS in Alaska. As late as this fall, the Association for Professional Observers, the folks who try to police the Alaska fisheries to stop the pirates, was reporting that at "the Observer Advisory Committee meeting in September, the small boat fleet (which has never been monitored in Alaska) vehemently opposed Vessel Monitoring Systems on their boats, and if you remember, Arne Fuglvog was able to fish illegally for at least 5 years, 'specifically' because he didn't have VMS and NMFS couldn't track them."

And as to the role of fisheries aide Fuglvog and his boss in keeping those monitoring systems off Alaska boats by the use of their powerful office way back in Washington, D.C.?  Who knows? There is enough smoke here to deduce that, indeed, Murkowski has a lot of nerve to lately lambast fish piracy, as if she'd ever before done anything to prevent it.

Apparently the Fuglvog affair didn't send her the message it should have, and that message is simple: Wise fisheries management starts at home. If Murkowski really wants to do something about fish pirates, a good first step might be to bring Alaska fishing boats into the VMS.

Then again, that could upset some powerful supporters.

It's a lot easier to pick on those damn foreigners.

CLARIFICATION: This story was edited on Dec. 19, 2011 to more accurately reflect what happened to Joe Miller while employed by the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com