Monday, August 29, 2011

Alaska's fisheries management and crony capitalism

By Victor Smith

Ever since 1998, when former Sen. Ted Stevens introduced his rotten American Fisheries Act (AFA), the United Fisherman of Alaska (UFA) and their allies on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC) have been carving off for themselves the choice pieces of the fisheries resources of the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. Stevens started it by giving the extremely lucrative pollock fishery to a handful of fishing companies and, in so doing, set off a vicious "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" national stampede for privatization. Why? In large part because no restrictions were placed to keep profits from pollock from being used to dominate all the other fisheries AFA companies participated in.

Proponents of catch shares have cleverly obfuscated their greed, jealousy, and crude survival instincts with high-minded baloney like the yarn that private ownership fosters good resource stewardship. Arne Fuglvog, the UFA's and Sen. Lisa Murkowski's pick to head NMFS, recently disproved that smarmy nonsense when he got busted for criminally underreporting his own catch while simultaneously parroting that bull at the Council.

There's nothing high-minded about divvying up the loot in the Gulf; it is dirty business, and all of a sudden it looks like Murkowski and UFA were pushing a "Manchurian Candidate" to head the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In his May 2009 email to the UFA, ex-Petersburg son John Enge gave a respectful and specific heads-up that Fuglvog was a crook and his appointment to head NMFS would backfire. Now that Enge's warning has proven true, the UFA is in the unenviable position of trying to convince everyone that they didn't know what everyone knows they knew all along -- that while Fuglvog may have been a good choice for the UFA, he was a thief and a poor choice for everyone else. To cover their asses the UFA is trying to make the story all about how Enge was "not credible," and claiming "(Enge) was in the practice of writing things that were untrue and denigrating our association and our industry."

Well boo-hoo for the poor UFA. Enge never denigrated the industry, just the UFA; and they deserve it. Does anyone believe that the UFA executive board (and Murkowski) were "all surprised as anybody" and didn't know about Arne's fishery violations? Sounds like time to subpoena some hard drives because as sure as dead fish stink, the UFA knew about Fuglvog and was white-knuckling it, hoping that everyone would keep their traps shut and their puppet-on-a-string candidate would squeak through.

Here's the story the UFA doesn't want anyone to hear:

After the AFA put everything on the table, a cabal of fishing industry insiders hatched a plan to rig the game by hijacking the much-revered UFA. They realized that fishermen were perceived as Alaska's soul, and if they could steal their voice by controlling the UFA they would wield a lot of power in Alaska. It would be a twofer: fishermen in opposition could be muzzled and their apparent support could be thrown behind almost anything.

As soon as they took it over, the UFA was used to boost Frank Murkowski into the governor's office. Not even apologizing to critics who pointed out that the UFA's membership had never been polled, UFA's new executives crowed about how they had worked for more than a year behind the scenes to link arms and make deals with nearly every other business sector in Alaska to get Murkowski elected.

But the deals came with a steep price for fishermen. The UFA's first deal was to quickly defend -- again without prior membership approval -- Murkowski's scuttling of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's (ADF&G) Habitat Division, the division actually responsible for the good stewardship of the habitat of the very fish that UFA members' livelihoods depended on.

The second deal the UFA made was to back, one after the other, two rotten Murkowski picks for ADF&G Commissioner. UFA's first supported commissioner, Kevin Duffy, signed off on icing the Habitat Division with admonishments to "not look back." Duffy also gave the state's approval to Congress for the BSAI Crab plan, which gifted even more exclusive rights, this time for crab, to another handful of fishing companies.

Inexplicably, the UFA's second pick for ADF&G commissioner was McKie Campbell, a guy who had spent the bulk of his career working for the mining industry to reduce standards for mine runoff into salmon streams. And the UFA didn't just grudgingly back Campbell; members of the UFA Executive Board actually traveled the state to make a slick promotional video to tout his appointment. (Campbell now works on Sen. Lisa Murkowski's staff, as Republican staff director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.)

The third deal the UFA made was to exploit what seems to have been a crisis manufactured to bankrupt and drive half their competition out of the State. Even after dropping the price of pink salmon to 5 cents a pound (the price now is 42 cents!), fish companies claimed they were losing money on every pound of fish they bought, and half the salmon fleet was informed they would have no place to sell their fish in the 2002 season. That vicious threat of losing markets was used to bludgeon fishermen's opposition to all of the UFA's deals.

A couple of years later Rob Zuanich, the UFA executive who made the promotional video for Campbell -- the same guy who had spent so much time in Gov. Murkowski's office “managing the crisis" in the spring of 2002 -- was given a very favorable $1.2-million loan from the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to start a fish company, thereby profiting mightily from the market conditions he helped create. Like Zuanich, Fuglvog, and Campbell, everyone who's ever packed water for the UFA has been given ever more lucrative and influential positions.

That's the opposite of the fortunes for everyone else -- and by design -- because when the loot's split up, it's best split the least number of ways. That's why the fisheries council process has been one of rigged exclusion; that's the way the ersatz democratic council process works.

Unless there is a thorough fumigation, the UFA and the councils will continue stealing national fisheries treasures and fencing them off to their own little networks, just as they've been doing for the last twelve or so years. If you run a small, honest business, that won't be good for you.

Victor Smith was born in Juneau and grew up in Petersburg. He has fished commercially all over Alaska on several of his own boats, mostly for salmon and herring, and he was a founding and long-time stockholder in NorQuest Seafoods.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Where have all the halibut gone? Long time passing.

The marvel of fisheries management in Alaska is that the 'official' position is that there is not a official position of any kind. I've been saying this for years; that it's a buffalo hunt out there. Some new reporters are 'getting it,' and that's refreshing. Many people are applauding that longtime Anchorage Daily News reporter Craig Medred, for delving into the morass that is halibut fishery management. Read this article first: Alaska Dispatch article here.

Read the second article here.

These articles should be read by anyone with the slightest interest in fairness in fisheries. I would hope, and yes, pray, that the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will cut the average low-budget Joe angler some slack to get some cook fish, relative to multi-millionaire halibut longliners.

Craig has a habit, from not reporting on ocean fishing management much, to use the term 'commercial fishing interests' when defining the competition for fish. On some battle fields like halibut, there is really a consortium arrayed against the cook-fish types. That includes the UFA political action group, not the people they CLAIM to represent. And it includes the bottom trawlers who have a massive by-catch problem of small halibut they are trying to cover up(see the Tholepin blog). And the factory trawl contingent has their own by-catch of salmon, squid, herring, crab, sea mammals and birds they try to hide. So they all ban together on everything in NPFMC meetings. If the halibut longliners want to snuff out the charter guys, then that's all right with the rest of them.

The charter guys, and the public, (maybe one or two go to the major rule making meetings) should not fight this on the council's own turf. They will lose and don't say I didn't warn. They need to go to the real problem of a lack of halibut that the longliners want to ignore, "the missing 100 million pounds of halibut" that the International Pacific Halibut Commission itself iterated. And with each new five year period, it happens again.

What we are witnessing is a repeat of the crash of the Eastern Canadian cod. Much hand wringing by the politicians, silence by the local government officials like Commish Cora Campbell, and a massive rush to get-it-while-they-can by socially callous big boat owners. And this is only the tip of the reef the 'people's fish' are running up on. I know the family Cora came from and I know they wouldn't approve of her ignoring the pleas of 'the least of these.'

Friday, August 12, 2011

Time for UFA to fess up

Even with overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing, I've heard a reporter say, "what if this isn't true," and, "don't you have a problem with privatization efforts?" Wow!! Even the LA Times took this tone, mentioning his "critics." Is a peace officer a "critic" of the criminal caught in the act?

Well, lots of folk just have a hard time calling the kettle black. And for other reasons that the media doesn't seem to think is important, the coastal communities in Alaska are drying up. Just this week I saw an article talking about the flight of permits from Bristol Bay, yanking the economic rug out from under those communities as well. Welcome to the world of privatization and consolidation of the fisheries resources.

Now one of the key players in the facilitation of the goal of complete consolidation has been brought to justice. See below. And after so many years in the works. Now, influential parties that swear on a stack of Bibles that they 'care' about the fisheries resources, are struggling clumsily to explain why they took no action earlier themselves in the matter. All will be revealed in the end, as they say.

Hopefully, the culprit himself will see his life in a new light, that culturing a rounded personality and moral compass are two of the legs of the three legged stool of the complete man. The other being sagehood, which Arne can undoubtedly demonstrate in Washington D.C. in the fisheries realm. In Alaska he is just another fisherman. We wish him luck in his quest. Below is more information on the train wreck that seems to be making more cars teeter on the tracks all the time.

"Assistant U.S. Attorney Steward said in an interview that Fuglvog is not considered convicted until the sentencing is complete and the judge has accepted the plea agreement. She declined to answer questions about the investigation of Fuglvog or the addendum to the plea agreement, except to say that it's usual to have a sealed addendum as part of any plea deal.

Fuglvog was Murkowski's fisheries adviser from 2006 until July 31, when he resigned the day before he was formally charged and his plea agreement went public.

Murkowski has said that Fuglvog, despite having signed the plea agreement on April 8, did not tell her about it until June 29.

Fuglvog's plea deal says he falsified records of his commercial catches several times between 2001 and 2006, a period during which Fuglvog helped regulate fishing off Alaska as a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

He admitted that in one 2005 incident he "covered up his illegal fishing" by claiming more than 30,000 pounds of sablefish, also known as black cod, were caught in the Central Gulf of Alaska region, rather than an area known as Western Yakutat.

The value of those illegally caught fish was about $100,000, according to his plea agreement.

News of Fuglvog's crime astonished many in the fishing world. John Sackton, president of industry information service, described Fuglvog as "the most important fisheries staffer in Washington."

Fuglvog came close two years ago to taking over as head of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the highest government position in the country that is focused solely on fishing. He was widely reported in fishing industry journals as being one of two finalists to take over the position.

The United Fishermen of Alaska on Saturday emailed a letter to its members, saying that the Fuglvog developments have cast a negative light on commercial fishing and stressing the need "to represent ourselves in a positive and forthright manner." The organization represents more than 30 commercial fishing industry groups throughout the state.

"UFA had no knowledge of fishing violations throughout Mr. Fuglvog's time of service on the NPFMC and his work for Senator Murkowski," wrote the group's president, Arnie Thomson, and its executive director, Mark Vinsel. "UFA's support for Fuglvog for the top ranking fisheries position in the U.S. in 2009 was based on his record of accomplishment and comprehensive knowledge of fisheries issues nationwide."

John Enge, who grew up in Fuglvog's hometown of Petersburg and created a fishing industry blog called "Alaska Café," confirmed this week that he had emailed UFA director Vinsel about Fuglvog in May 2009. Enge wrote in 2009 that "there is an effort to bring to light the log books of Arne's that document under-reporting of landings to NMFS Ram Division. ... Apparently there are plenty of people whose testimony of at least a ten year period of falsifying federal documents would hold up in court."

Vinsel said this week that Enge's email had seemed to him at the time like just one of the rumors that constantly swirl around the fishing industry. Vinsel said that he simply deleted the email and that UFA did not take any action as a result of his receiving it.

"UFA groups had already supported Fuglvog for the NMFS position two weeks prior to my receiving this message. I did not feel that this second hand rumor was credible, in light of the extensive background check that is performed on all regional fishery management council appointees," Vinsel said."

Read more:

I have to add that of the thirty odd fishermen's organizations that UFA lists as members, quite a number of them aren't fishermen's organizations, lest anyone think that this emperor does wear clothes. Many of them are aquaculture associations. This may sound impressive, but in fact they are salmon hatchery operations with only a few employees, none of which are fishermen.

I could go on and on pointing to the elephant in the room, but if the media are operating with blinders on they will never see this industry for what it is. Peeling the onion, another way to look at it, would however provide exciting reading for many, many months and probably pull some newspapers out of their funk.