Fishermen's advocate heads to D.C.

Members of Southeast Alaska fleet worry they'll lose a strong voice on fisheries council

Posted: Friday, July 21, 2006

Come September, the "go-to guy" for Alaska's commercial fishing fleet won't need his rubber boots anymore.

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Arne Fuglvog, 42, is bidding adieu to his dual life as a respected Petersburg fisherman and federal fisheries bureaucrat.

A fisherman since he was 9, Fuglvog is trading his rain gear and boots for a suit. He will move to Washington, D.C., to work for U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski as a fishing policy aide, replacing Bill Woolf, who will retire in January.

A major reason for the industry's focus on Fuglvog: He is the only active commercial fisherman on the 15-member North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which recommends regulations for fisheries in U.S. waters off the coast of Alaska. He was appointed in 2003 and served on the council's advisory panel for nine years prior.

"There's a lot of people who count on me," Fuglvog said Thursday. "People were concerned because I was the only active fisherman."

Especially concerned are some fellow longliners and other small-boat Southeast Alaska fishermen chafing about the dominance of large seafood firms on the council.

"More and more corporate interests are dominating the arena," said Linda Behnken, a Sitka longliner and executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association.

"It's important for the small fisherman to have a voice," said Behnken, who previously sat on the council.

"I guess I have a different take," said Stephanie Madsen, chairwoman of the North Pacific council.

"If you put us in boxes, I'm a processor representative ... but without harvesters, processors don't get anything," said Madsen, who is also a lobbyist and vice president for the Pacific Seafood Processors Association.

Madsen confessed to some frustration with Alaskans who expect council members to vote as a representative for a particular commercial sector.

"I'm not sure I care who they work for. ... You need to have people willing to do the homework - hard workers, problem solvers," Madsen said.

On Thursday morning, Fuglvog sipped coffee on his tender boat in Petersburg and chatted on the phone while he waited to unload salmon after his 3 a.m. arrival in port.

Fuglvog said he had to make a lot of phone calls after he accepted Murkowski's job offer at the beginning of the week. A lot of people were going to wonder why he was going to trade the fishing for Capitol Hill.

"Word spreads like wildfire," he said.

By all accounts, Fuglvog (pronounced FOOGLE-vog) has been an enterprising fishermen. He has fished for crab, salmon, halibut and black cod.

The Petersburg fifth-generation fisherman was named Fisherman of the Year in 2005 by the United Fishermen of Alaska, a statewide umbrella group of 31 commercial fishing associations.

Fuglvog, a father of two step children, also nabbed the Highliner of the Year award in 2003 from National Fisherman, a magazine devoted to commercial fishing news and opinion.

He said he loved his work on the North Pacific council but he has had trouble balancing it with his own family-run fishing business in Petersburg.

"The (council) work load has dramatically increased. ... We were doing four-day meetings. Now we are doing nine-day meetings. I have been struggling with spending six months on fishing boats, two months in meetings," he said.

Outside of their marathon meetings, council members deliberate on lengthy documents, sometimes thousands of pages long. Yearlong, they are lobbied by a spectrum of interest groups and businesses.

"It's a major chore to be on the council. ... It's also been a hot-spot position to be in, with a lot of money at stake, and complex issues," said Gunnar Knapp, a fisheries economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research.

Knapp said a council seat is likely the most difficult for independent fishermen, running their own business without the cushion provided by a government or big industry job.

Fuglvog said he would try to do his reading assignments at sea.

This summer, he scheduled a Gulf of Alaska longline trip to coincide with a highly contentious North Pacific council meeting on Kodiak Island. The night before the meeting started, Fuglvog's crew dropped him off, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived, at the dock, he said.

Council staff and fellow council members, however, say Fuglvog is one of the most well-studied of the group.

"He's a problem solver and a hard worker," said Madsen of Juneau.

But Fuglvog was bracing for a change. To continue serving on the council, "I was going to have to make a change ... probably to fish less," Fuglvog said.

Instead, Sen. Murkowski's job came open.

"He will be a tremendous asset not only to my office, but to the whole Alaska fishing community," Murkowski said in a prepared statement Thursday afternoon.

Gov. Frank Murkowski appointed Fuglvog in 2003. The informal process for looking for his successor has already started, said the governor's fish aide, Alan Austerman.

Austerman said the governor hopes to submit three names to the U.S. secretary of commerce by late August. The idea is to fill the job before the council's next meeting in October in Dutch Harbor.

"We haven't talked about whether it should be or will be a commercial fisherman," Austerman said. "That will be taken into consideration."

"I hope the council make-up will stay the same, but it is up to the governor," Fuglvog said.

The father of two plans to finish off the salmon season and take one longline trip.

Then, Fuglvog will take off for his first job orientation, the first week of September. His wife will live with him in Washington part of the year but also will maintain their fishing business based in Petersburg.

Fuglvog noted that while people deride the North Pacific council for its "serious lack of rubber boots," that there is a much greater scarcity in Washington.

"I have to learn the process back there ... how to navigate Capitol Hill," Fuglvog said.

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