GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 3, 2009

Alaska, Mass. fishing experts up for top job

By Richard Gaines

President Barack Obama needed less time making a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court than oceans and fisheries administrator Jane Lubchenco has already used mulling which of two candidates she will appoint to head the National Marine Fisheries Service.

But the pivotal choice has emerged between Arne Fuglvog, 45, an Alaskan fisherman, businessman and former appointed fisheries council member turned senatorial aide, and Brian Rothschild, an academic at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.

Rothschild, 73, once taught James Balsiger, the outgoing acting NMFS administrator, at the University of Washington, and has been a rallying force for the New England fishing industry that is in the midst of a wrenching reorganization from effort controls to "catch shares."

Fuglvog is considered by many to be the likely choice for the job that Balsiger, a fellow Alaskan, will give up to return to his state to become NMFS' regional administrator.

Lubchenco's office declined to comment yesterday on the pending selection.

"We are not able to discuss this while the decision is still under consideration," said Justin Kenney, director of communications for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The catch share system, which converts the natural wild resources into apportioned, tradeable rights, similar to IFQs or individual fishing quotas, has been used with dramatic results in Alaska, in multiple fisheries that include halibut and black cod and in the Bering Sea crab fishery that has been documented in the "The Deadliest Catch" TV series.

What viewers don't know is that the competition there was pared from 250 to 120 boats, which put more than 500 non-equity owning deckhands out of work, and also ended the wild race to fish that took place before rights were apportioned and the competitive principle was open access. The landmark "crab rationalization vote" of the Northern Pacific Fishery Management Council that included Fuglvog, the son of a popular and successful entrepreneur in Petersburg, was unanimous in 2004.

In contrast to Rothschild — who was proposed by Congressman Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, to Lubchenco soon after she was confirmed by the Senate as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — Fuglvog's candidacy seemed to take root in his own mind and the strategic thinking of Lubchenco and her top advisor, attorney Monica Medina, according to Fuglvog.

"It was mutual interest, not by Jane or Monica," Fuglvog said in a telephone interview yesterday from his office in Washington, where he serves as legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. He said the idea was broached to the NOAA leaders by a "mutual source in the science field."

Fuglvog insisted he has not been offered the job.

"I haven't heard anything, we're just responding to rumors," he said.

Both Lubchenco and Medina come out of the environmental sector, Lubchenco as an academic scientist and former Pew fellow, Medina a functionary for the Pew Charitable Trusts' environmental interests in the oceans who cycled through the Clinton administration as NOAA's general counsel. Medina's husband, Ron Klain, chief of staff to Vice President Joseph Biden, organized the process that led to Obama's May 26 announcement that he would nominate U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor to replace retiring U.S. Supreme Court Judge David Souter.

Lubchenco and Medina interviewed Fuglvog and Rothschild for the top NMFS post in April. No other candidates were identified or considered, according to sources involved in the selection process.

Lubchenco asserted her priorities by announcing in May that she had named Medina to head a task force that would help the nation's fisheries complete the statutorily mandated conversion to "catch shares."

She also noted that she had arranged for government and backup private philanthropic financial help to lubricate the changeover.

The New England Fishery Management Council meets in Portland, Maine, later this month under a Lubchenco directive to complete the conception and ratification of the catch share program.

For the western Atlantic fisheries, it will be implemented through a system of voluntary business cooperatives known as sectors; these will be allocated a group catch share even as a significant minority of the fishermen who have opted against joining a sector continue to work under a continuing effort control system of limited access and days at sea.

Whatever allocation formula is voted in during the Portland meeting will produce winners and losers. Moreover, there is no good estimate of the cost of monitoring the sector catch-share system, nor is there any idea how the group fishing will integrate into the common pool operations, in what is inherently a de facto caste system.

The uncertainties ahead for New England represent among the severest challenge for the Obama administration as it reaches to regulate the ocean's climate and harvesting industries.

At her confirmation hearing in January, Lubchenco conceded that the relationship between the regulators at NMFS, based here in Gloucester, and the regulated pods of boats up and down the coast but concentrated in Gloucester, the nation's oldest port, and New Bedford, the busiest in the value of the landings, was "seriously dysfunctional."

Balsiger told the Times last winter he would advise Lubchenco that the problems of the New England fishery were NMFS' most pressing challenge.

Rothschild meanwhile, is working at the nexus of academic scientific ocean research, politics, and the fishing industry. No other state may have a stronger shadow system of fisheries regulation than Massachusetts, and Gov. Deval Patrick, a close ally of the president, has undertaken an effort to regulate and zone the state waters that are fished from border to border.

The virtually all-Democratic state government and congressional delegation have repeatedly challenged the policies coming from NOAA and its subsidiary, NMFS, and recently registered intense opposition to enforcement practices that have impoverished many fishermen and driven others out of the business.

Recently, at the governor's request, Rothschild organized a rapid turnaround proposal in the university's Department of Fisheries Oceanography to demonstrate to NOAA and NMFS scientists exceptionally dire estimates of the status of the winter flounder stock might be exaggerated due to a flawed use of survey technology, and that ways might exist to allow greater access to the recovered stocks of groundfish on which the coastal cultures depend.

Fuglvog, in contrast, sees himself as having as an asset "extensive experience" with various forms of catch shares in the Alaskan fisheries, the "most of them in the nation," he noted.

"I've helped design them, the good the bad and the ugly," he said.

Although Rothschild is admired and widely supported for the NMFS administrator's position throughout New England, Fuglvog has been the beneficiary of a lobbying campaign organized by a number of environmental lobbies, including the Environmental Defense Fund.

It registered its support for Fuglvog as early as April 9 in a letter to Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, who has the authority to make the appointment.

"New England fisheries are not alone," Diane Regas, the Environmental Defense Fund's associate vice president for oceans, told the Times in an interview. "That's one reason to support Arne. He's been a fisherman, he's been on the council."

Not all those on a first-name basis with Fuglvog, however, hold him in the same high regard.

A lifetime participant in the Alaska fishery in many roles, and creator of the fishing industry blog "Alaska Cafe", John Enge, who grew up in Petersburg with Fuglvog's family and has known him for decades, said he believes Fuglvog is unqualified to head NMFS.

"He has no credentials that suggest that he would be any sort of good administrator ... no science, no management, just a fisherman," said Enge in a telephone interview.

"I've known him since we were little kids," said Fuglvog. "It doesn't bother me at all."

Intstead, Fuglvog said he thought people are "encouraged that I'm an outsider.

"I'm not from that world (of environmental politics)," he said. "Some would say I offer good balance."

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com