The 2009-2010 search for a head of federal fisheries — which dragged on for a year and brought into focus the priorities of the Obama administration's star scientist — became clearer in its own right last week when the one-time lead contender for the job resigned from a congressional office under fire for violating federal fishing policies.
Arne Fuglvog had been one of the two prime candidates to head the National Marine Fisheries Service in the NOAA administration of Jane Lubchenco and had the backing of the powerful Environmental Defense Fund, which, with Lubchenco at NOAA's helm, was in the midst of its push for a new catch share management system.
The other lead candidate was Brian Rothschild, the well-connected and highly regarded scientist from New Bedford. But Fuglvog withdrew his candidacy, and Lubchenco refused to appoint Rothschild to the post that is now held by NMFS chief Eric Schwaab. Schwaab was not appointed until several months later, even as the Department of Commerce Inspector General's Office began investigation wrongdoing on the part of government agents in the fishery.
According to Wednesday's Anchorage Daily News, Fuglvog in April agreed to plead guilty to one count of violating the Lacy Act — a law barring the sale of illegally taken wildlife — by harvesting on several occasions twice as much sablefish as allowed and then lying about where the fish was caught.
If the judge approves the agreement, Fuglvog will serve time and pay a $150,000 fine.
In 2006, Fuglvog arrived in Washington, D.C., from the Alaskan fishing industry — a popular, fifth generation fisherman, with experience on the region's federal fisheries management council.
In 2009, with Rothschild's hat already in the ring to head NMFS, Fuglvog put his in, too, with the endorsement of the Environmental Defense Fund — where Lubchenco had been vice chairwoman — and the backing of The Nature Conservancy and a number of Alaskan fishing groups.
Diane Regas, EDF's associate vice president for oceans, told the Times that Fuglvog's hands-on experience and government work earned him EDF's support.
"He's been a fisherman, he's been on the council," she said in a telephone interview at the time.
Lubchenco interviewed Fuglvog and Rothschild in April 2009, soon after she was confirmed by the Senate to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But instead of appointing either, she put off naming a head of federal fisheries and turned to her push for catch shares — transforming the resources of the sea into an allocation of shares accessible and attractive to investors.
Her first major appointment instead of a head of fisheries was a catch share task force coordinator. She named Monica Medina. A former chief counsel at NOAA in the Clinton administration, Medina had been on the NOAA transition team that picked Lubchenco.
When Fuglvog resigned last week from the staff of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, after fessing up and expressing his regrets, a possible reason came to light why Lubchenco hesitated and then passed on his candidacy back in 2009.
No reason has ever been given Lubchenco's shunning of Rothschild — other than the opposition of EDF and that of its favorite New England nonprofit lobbying platform, the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association.
The "Hookers," as they call themselves, have wielded more influence than their small numbers would suggest through grants underwriting their political and PR activities,
Fuglvog's resignation was first reported Tuesday by Seafood.com and confirmed by Murkowski's office, which issued a statement saying that Fuglvog, 47, "will plead guilty to this charge as part of a plea agreement."
"Arne has cooperated fully with the authorities, taken responsibility for his actions, and accepted the consequences," Murkowski's statement added.
Rumors of a disqualifying flaw in Fuglvog's past were ripe during the spring and summer of 2009, when acting administrator James Balsiger — another Alaskan — held the nation's top fisheries position.
Lubchenco had her pick of two popular candidates — Fuglvog, from the state whose outsized fisheries were organized under the catch share system more than any other, and Rothschild, who carried extensive experience, scientific credentials and a number of endorsements, including U.S. Rep Barney Frank's and the support of much of the Massachusetts and U.S. fishing industry.
But Rothschild held a healthy skepticism about catch shares and did not have Lubchenco's faith that privatizing the resource would help conserve it, or preserve the diversity of the fleet.
On July 31, 2009, Fuglvog, who had fished and served on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council for three years until he joined Murkowski's Washington, D.C. staff in 2006, took himself out of the running.
"Sadly, the process of considering candidates for this important position has simply taken much longer than I had anticipated, and I am no longer able to remain as a candidate," he said in a letter to NOAA.
With the end of Fuglvog's candidacy, the only apparent option left for Lubchenco was Rothschild.
By then, the Commerce Department Inspector General's office had launched the national investigation of law enforcement practices; in January 2010, IG Todd Zinser would begin reporting on excesses of enforcement and abuses of the nearly $100 million in fines produced for NOAA's Asset Forfeiture Fund by the Offices of Law Enforcement and General Counsel for Enforcement and Litigtion.
Lubchenco's failure to pick an administrator for NMFS in her first year in office meant there was no appointed authority to oversee NOAA law enforcement while the inspector general was gathering evidence.
In his first comprehensive report to Lubchenco on Jan. 21, 2010, Inspector General Todd Zinser commented critically about the unfilled position.
"We note that the NMFS position is presently occupied by an acting official, and that the new NOAA general counsel appointee (Lois Schiffer) was just announced," Zinser wrote. "These key leadership positions are critical to NOAA's ability to effectively oversee its enforcement program."
Two weeks later, as the fishing industry — recreational and commercial — prepared for a mass national rally in Washington, D.C. to press for reforms of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, Lubchenco finally announced Schwaab as her choice to head NMFS.
Schwaab had come from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources with a history in fresh water when he made his first appearance at the periphery of the rally giving interviews to rebut the excited claims and allegations of the Capitol rally crowd.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.