Alaskan fisheries advisor guilty of $100,000 in illegal fishing
In Alaska, fishing stories don't get much bigger than this one: Arne Fuglvog, who was U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's top fisheries advisor and not long ago a top candidate to become head of the National Marine Fisheries Service, has pleaded guilty to illegal fishing -- $100,000 worth.
Fuglvog, a longtime commercial fisherman with years of service on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, will probably land in prison for 10 months and have to pay $150,000 in fines and restitution, if U.S. District Judge Russel Holland goes with the plea deal during sentencing set for Nov. 18.
He had been Murkowski's top fisheries advisor since 2006, and one of the nation's most powerful players on fishing policy.
According to the federal charges, Fuglvog in 2005 took 63,000 pounds of sablefish --nearly twice what he was allowed to catch from the Western Yakutat area of the Gulf of Alaska -- and then falsified the records to suggest that half the fish had been caught in the central gulf.
Though Fuglvog and his crew might have caught the same amount of fish legally on a different day, cooking the books is a big deal in Alaska, which exports $1.6 billion of seafood a year and where access to fishing grounds is a matter of intense competition and debate.
The question on everyone's mind now is, what did Murkowski know, and when did she know it?
Though Fuglvog quietly signed a plea agreement with federal prosecutors April 8, Murkowski told the Anchorage Daily News her advisor didn't tell her about it until June 29; she didn't learn Fuglvog had already signed it, she said, until the plea deal was revealed publicly at the end of July -- when she accepted his resignation.
"Arne served Alaskans for the past five years on my staff and for over a decade before that in his public service work in fisheries," Murkowski said in a statement. "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."
"A United States senator has a fisheries aide about whom there are federal allegations of fisheries violations. At the least, Murkowski should have had Fuglvog tell her exactly what the allegations were and ask him flat out what he had done," it said. "You'd think a senator would make it crystal clear to every staff member that she would have to know about any criminal investigation of any of them."
An industry newsletter, Seafoodnews.com, points out that the critics of Fuglvog who apparently reported the purported violations initially to congressional critics of the National Marine Fisheries Service, rather than the authorities themselves, are undermining the controversial system of fishing quotas that have helped stabilize the industry.
"The larger question, and why Fuglvog matters, is that the case is being used to weaken the entire structure of U.S. fishing regulation. The fact that the detractors went immediately to the East Coast, rather than federal authorities, says volumes about what they thought was at stake," the newsletter said in an editorial.
"Fuglvog's guilty plea has given these critics a win: a live example that what they have alleged all along about the corruption ... the way in which people who benefit from the management system are in themselves cheaters, has one proven example where they are correct."
Fuglvog pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation of the Lacey Act, which combats trafficking in illegally taken wildlife, fish and plants.
--Kim Murphy in Seattle
Photo: Arne Fuglvog, left, operates the winch scale in 2006 as crewmen Ryan Littleton, center, and Brannon Finney steady a tote of pink and chum salmon on Admiralty Island in Alaska. Credit: Associated Press