Clem Tillion, Alaska’s original ‘fish czar,’ dies at 96

Clem Tillion in Halibut Cove in 2018. (Jason Sear)

Clem Tillion had a story for everyone, it seemed, and now everyone is telling Clem Tillion stories.

A towering figure in the worlds of Alaska fisheries and politics — and in the intersection between the two — Tillion, 96, died Wednesday morning at his home in Halibut Cove.

“Clem Tillion belongs to history now,” said Rick Halford, who served with Tillion in the state Legislature. “Almost 100 years of his own history and a lot of great contributions to the state of Alaska. He was an outstanding person and a great teacher.”

Tillion, in the words of one close friend, was Alaska’s original “fish czar.” He helped resettle Halibut Cove, played a role in the creation of the Permanent Fund and, into his 90s, remained active as a fisheries lobbyist and an uncompromising advocate for the Permanent Fund dividend.

And he was the only Alaska lawmaker to vote against repealing the state’s income tax in 1980 — a decision he defended for the rest of his life.

“He was a long-term thinker,” said Vince Tillion, one of Tillion’s two sons. “His fish politics were for the fish. His state politics were the long-term interest of the state.”

The only thing that slowed Clem Tillion down was a long ago back injury that interfered with the sensation and circulation in his feet.

His last foot injury, which led to complications that ultimately caused his death, came as he was using heavy equipment to work on a neighbor’s foundation over the summer, said Martha Cotten, one of Tillion’s two daughters.

Tillion, left, and former state Sen. Mike Szymanski carry Tillion’s casket at Tillion’s “Dead or Alive” party in 2012. (Courtesy Mike Szymanski)

“But he was going to be doing those sorts of things ’til he died anyway,” she said.

Tillion’s casket had been waiting for him for a decade: He bought one after having a premonition that he would die in October of 2012. One of his friends, tired of hearing about Tillion’s impending demise, challenged him to a bet that would come due when Tillion expected to die.

“If you’re in that casket, I will pay for all the booze that people can drink at your going-away,” the friend, former state senator and fisheries lobbyist Mike Szymanski, said he told Tillion. “If you’re not in that goddamn casket, you’re paying for all the booze, but we’re still having a party.”

Tillion lost. The “Dead or Alive Party” was an alive party.

“I had just come back from fishing, got to go over, and here’s Clem, sitting on the dock with his casket full of beer,” said another longtime friend and Homer fisherman, Buck Laukitis. “He said, ‘Buck, better have a beer — I can’t get in there ’til it’s all gone.’”

Tillion was born in 1925 in Brooklyn, New York, where his father was an architect. He served in the South Pacific during World War II — a searing experience that he would breezily recount, in gruesome detail, into his old age.

He arrived in Alaska on a steamship and traveled to the shore of Kachemak Bay by train, raft and on foot before working his way around to Halibut Cove. The community was once home to thousands of people who worked in a herring fishery, but it was largely abandoned after fish stocks died off.

Tillion could still fish for halibut and cod, and he bought most of an island in the cove for $1,400. The money was secured from an Anchorage bank with a letter of recommendation from a seafood processor named Squeaky Anderson: “He’s a crazy kid but catches fish.”

Tillion married Diana, an artist who became known for painting with octopus ink, and the couple raised four children.

He entered the state House in 1963, just a few years after statehood, when a retiring lawmaker signed Tillion up to run without consulting with him.

Tillion served in the House and Senate for nearly 20 years. While there, he helped develop the state’s system to limit the number of permitted commercial salmon fishermen, in an effort to conserve declining stocks and keep fishing rights in Alaskans’ possession.

Clem Tillion as a state senator. (Alaska State Library)

Much later, as “fish czar” for Gov. Wally Hickel, he got behind a system that divided up harvests of halibut and black cod into individual catch shares for fisherman — a move aimed at eliminating frenzied, derby-style fisheries where boats faced pressure to operate in dangerous weather.

Even into his 90s, Tillion continued working on fisheries issues as a paid lobbyist for the regional Alaska Native corporation for the Aleutian Islands.

Tillion was also close with Jay Hammond, a bush pilot and fisherman who served with Tillion in the Legislature, then was elected governor.

The two worked together on the establishment of the Alaska Permanent Fund in the 1970s, which Tillion later described as the “probably the single best accomplishment completed by our state government since statehood.”

His advocacy around the fund and the dividend never stopped.

Tillion signed onto a 2016 lawsuit that unsuccessfully challenged a partial dividend veto by then-Gov. Bill Walker. And he continued writing opinion pieces and letters pushing Alaska leaders to put larger dividend payments and lower overall spending by the fund in the state Constitution. (Any resulting budget holes, he has said, could be filled by a reinstated income tax.)

A May 3 letter to the Legislature apologized for “nattering on,” cited a 1970 Harper’s Magazine story and told lawmakers that their political problems would “disappear like a plate of king crab legs at a legislative reception” if only they could agree to enshrine a “sensible” dividend payment in the Alaska Constitution.

Those positions, like many others Tillion took in his career, were geared toward preserving resources for future generations of Alaskans.

“I never thought of myself as anything but a temporary organism that was going to be here for a few years and pass on,” Tillion once told journalist Charles Wohlforth. “And the only thing that counted were my children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren.”

The policies Tillion fought for have not been universally embraced. One recent report published by the Nature Conservancy found that the limited entry permit program disadvantages Alaska Native and rural communities.

Tillion also could be pushy, and a crafty and confounding opponent if you found yourself on the opposite side of an issue. A 1992 Anchorage Daily News profile referenced a bumper sticker that referred to Tillion as the “prince of darkness,” and featured a photo of him sitting on a bulldozer under the headline: “Get out of the way — be it for fisheries or for family, Clem Tillion does what he thinks is best.”

But Tillion was also effective, and beloved by generations of fishermen, policymakers and family members who spent time with him.

Tillion’s casket was filled with beer for his 2012 party. Now, it rests in a crypt on a hilltop above his home in Halibut Cove, where he lies beside his late wife, accompanied by pickled herring, cookies and a martini. (Courtesy Mike Szymanski)

“He could command the room, and everybody listened,” said Laukitis, who, like Tillion, served on a key fisheries policy making board called the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. “I’ve had dinner with him in restaurants, and he’s so loud that you get stares from all the way on the other side of the room. And some of his stories were not very politically correct, and some of them kind of made you cringe at times. But we’ve all heard them, and they make me smile now.”

Laukitis was one of Tillion’s close friends who got to see him in his final days.

Tillion had spent four days in the hospital for treatment of an infection in his foot. But visitors couldn’t see him there because of COVID-19 restrictions, so two of his children rolled him out of the hospital for a little party with friends, then rolled him back in for his next dose of antibiotics.

Ultimately, with his health failing, his family brought him back across Kachemak Bay to his expansive home in Halibut Cove. That’s where he died, said Martha Cotten, his daughter.

“In his room, with a picture of my mom, comfortably,” she said.

Cotten, her husband and her brother Vince spoke with a reporter late Wednesday from Tillion’s home, just before his casket was sealed in a hilltop crypt that also holds his late wife’s Diana’s coffin.

“It was a great loss,” Cotten said. “But not unexpected. We definitely all were crying for a couple of hours. But we’re bucking up.”

Inside the casket with Tillion: pickled herring, cookies, photos of his family and notes from Diana. And a martini.

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