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ANCHORAGE - No one talks with Clem Tillion for very long without hearing a tale or two about military history and heroism. The art of war has deeply informed his own storied career in Alaska fishery politics.
"It doesn't matter how many fall," he quotes his Army father, who won a Silver Star in World War I. "It's who farms the land when it's over."
Tillion is 79. His vigor is unquestioned, but he walks gingerly on two artificial knees. He still relishes a fish fight.
He savored his latest victory in June at a meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Portland, Ore. The federal council voted to allocate the Aleut Corp., which hired Tillion as a consultant, up to 19,000 metric tons of Aleutian Islands pollock annually.
The fish could mean tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the Native corporation and its emerging seafood port of Adak, located 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage.
To be sure, Tillion didn't win the council action all by himself. Alaska's powerful Republican senator Ted Stevens wants the abandoned naval base on Adak Island converted into a civilian fishing town. But Tillion, by all accounts, was a key player in the Adak pollock allocation.
Like so many of Tillion's battles since he landed in Alaska in 1947, the pollock allocation was contentious. Some Seattle trawlers fumed that Adak's quota would come right out of the hide of the Bering Sea fleet.
Tillion, though in the employ of a paying client, says it was easy to upset the Seattle trawlers. He says the Aleut people suffered death and deprivation of their land after the government rounded them up and interned them in Southeast Alaska camps during World War II to "protect" them from the Japanese. To stoke the argument, Tillion made sure each member of the North Pacific Council was handed a copy of a book on the internment bearing a cover photo of an Aleut girl who died.
"I don't have any apologies for what I did," Tillion says. "I'm not doing anything against my state. I'm doing something for it. I'm righting a great wrong."
Tillion is well-accustomed to pushing landmark fishery issues in the North Pacific. His political power and his outsized personality have won him plenty of admirers and enemies.
He helped hatch limited entry for Alaska's salmon fisheries, and in the early 1990s, when he worked as "fisheries tsar" under former Alaska Gov. Wally Hickel, he led the fight for individual fishing quotas for the state's sablefish and halibut fisheries. Critics dubbed Tillion the "prince of darkness" for that one, saying he was vesting a select few with a public resource. Tillion declared he was simply doing what Hickel asked: putting more fresh fish on the dinner table by creating longer, less frenzied fisheries.
Tillion worked for many years as a commercial fisherman in Alaska before retiring in 1976.
"The year I quit I caught 172,000 pounds of Dungeness crab and 250,000 pounds of king crab, plus salmon, both seine and gillnet," he says.
He would become a leading state legislator, helping to start the tradition of paying Alaskans an annual dividend from the state's oil wealth before retiring as Senate president in 1981. He was appointed to the very first North Pacific Council in 1976, and served there for many years.