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Alaska firms use 'big guns' to catch fishing rights
Anchorage Daily News


December 07, 2005

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Alaska fishing companies are mounting an intense lobbying battle in Washington to try to lock up Bering Sea commercial fishing rights worth millions of dollars.

The six companies, divided into two competing factions, have hired lobbyists with close ties to members of Alaska's congressional delegation.

The lobbyists include Art Nelson, Rep. Don Young's son-in-law and chairman of the Alaska Board of Fisheries; Carl Marrs, former Cook Inlet Region Inc. chief executive and a friend of Sen. Ted Stevens; Trevor McCabe, an Anchorage attorney and former fisheries aide to Stevens; and C.J. Zane, a Washington lobbyist and political consultant who worked for eight years as Young's chief of staff.

The lobbyists are all working to persuade Congress how to settle a long-standing feud among the six companies over lucrative catch rights.

All involved hope to use a pending Coast Guard reauthorization bill to settle the fish fight in their favor.

The Senate and the House have passed versions of the bill, which now rests with a conference committee to iron out the differences. That could happen by year's end.




Young is chairman of the conference committee, and Stevens is a member.

Morgen Crow, executive director of one of the fishing firms, Anchorage-based Coastal Villages Region Fund, said Monday the six companies have fought with one another for years over catch rights, and now they're looking to Congress to settle the issue once and for all.

"We've got some big guns that we're sharing, yes," Crow said of lobbyists that his and three other companies have hired. "We need some great father to settle it."

The six companies involved in the struggle are part of the federal Community Development Quota program.

Fishery regulators, with the help of Young and Stevens, established the CDQ program in 1992 as a way to help impoverished Western Alaska villages reap some of the value of the industrial fisheries occurring off their shores.

The program annually sets aside up to 10 percent of the fish and crab available to the Bering Sea commercial fishing fleet for the exclusive benefit of 65 participating villages. Each village is represented by one of the six companies, which sell the seafood catch.

Although the program has been a powerful wealth builder for the villages - the six tax-exempt CDQ companies collectively hold more than $350 million in vessels and other assets - the companies have competed bitterly for shares of the 10 percent reserved for them.

Each company's share is subject to change every three years or so, based on a state oversight panel's evaluation of each firm's business and community development efforts.

In March, the panel recommended taking away some of one CDQ company's pollock - a white fish that accounts for most CDQ revenue - and redistributing it to other companies. The governor and federal regulators have not adopted the recommendation.

The company, Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, can't afford to lose fish worth more than $1.3 million a year, said Larry Cotter, chief executive of the Juneau, Alaska-based firm.

Cotter's company, which counts one other CDQ company as an ally, is paying lobbyist Zane to battle Nelson, Marrs and McCabe, who have submitted draft legislation to the Alaska delegation to make the state panel's recommended allocations permanent. Federal records show Aleutian Pribilof Island paid Zane about $40,000 through the first half of this year.

McCabe said Monday he doesn't believe any of the fishing companies are doing anything wrong in hiring lobbyists with strong ties to the lawmakers. Most of the Bering Sea fishing industry no longer competes for fish but enjoys set shares of the available harvest, and the CDQ companies want the same security, he said.

"This is an allocation battle, and it needs to be settled," McCabe said. "The tensions are running high, and that's normal for an allocation battle in the fishing business."

Federal records show McCabe has received at least $20,000 this year through June to lobby for CDQ companies.

Nelson, married for 12 years to Young's daughter, Joni, said he recently inked a contract to lobby for Coastal Villages Region Fund, one of the four CDQ companies that McCabe and Marrs also are representing.

Nelson, 36, said he's worked since college in various jobs related to commercial fishing and knows the industry well. Until he resigned recently, he headed an Anchorage nonprofit called the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. In a prior position with a trade association of Seattle-based fishing ships, Nelson's boss was McCabe.

Nelson acknowledged his family tie to Young "probably does have some benefit to it" in landing the CDQ lobbying job. But he said he expects no favoritism from his father-in-law.

"I've got a long history with these guys," he said of his new clients. "They know me, they trust me and I understand their issues. I believe they feel I'll be a good advocate."

Nelson is chairman of the state Board of Fisheries, which regulates crab, salmon and herring fisheries that some of the CDQ companies participate in, including Coastal Villages. Nelson said he will recuse himself from any issue that might pose a conflict of interest.

And Nelson added that he might resign from the board in the spring "because I don't want to give anybody the opportunity to question my integrity or that of the board and its process."

Marrs, the former CIRI chief executive, this year was facilitator for Gov. Frank Murkowski's "blue-ribbon committee" on reforming the CDQ program. The report was finished in August, and Marrs said it was only after the committee's report was done that he signed a contract as a consultant for the four CDQ companies, including Coastal Villages, the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. and Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association.

Marrs said the CDQ program is "something that's near and dear to me" and that he wants to help settle the fish fight among the six companies. Giving the CDQ companies stability will help them grow and wrest more control of Alaska's huge fisheries from Seattle and Japanese interests that historically have dominated them, he said.

Young could not be reached Friday or Monday. Stevens, in a prepared statement Monday, said his office has had many meetings on the CDQ issue, but the Coast Guard bill "is still in conference and I cannot discuss that bill."


Distributed to subscribers by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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