Opinions

Remembering a pair of Alaska titans through the eyes of a fisherman

Alaska, and the seafood industry, saw the passing of two giants in the past few weeks: Clem Tillion and Chuck Bundrant. The news articles about them were great and provided good insight into the men, their accomplishments and their passions. I had the pleasure to know and work with both for several decades. I loved both of them. This is my effort to share some behind-the-scenes observations of them as human beings.

Both Clem and Chuck shared many similarities. They were visionaries, keenly intelligent, tenacious, canny. They had endless stories and great memories, especially for people. They each had a great sense of humor, did everything possible to succeed — and succeed they did, albeit with a few broken eggs in the process. They both created legacies that will outlast them and benefit us for generations to come

I first met Clem on an early Sunday afternoon after I had finished processing crab at Juneau Cold Storage. It was January 1977. I was walking down the street in my soiled clothes when I encountered a tall, red-headed, husky man. He stopped me, asked if I was just getting off work at the cold storage and introduced himself, “I’m Clem.” We started talking fish. One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, we were in his office in the Capitol Building. That was when I found out he was a state senator.

On his wall was a gigantic map of Alaska with little colored pins stuck in communities from Southeast to the Aleutian Islands, the Bering Sea, and Western Alaska. The pins were connected with different colored strings denoting shipping routes. Key species were penned in throughout each region: pollock, flatfish, Pacific cod, crab (by species), sablefish, halibut — some of these I had never heard of. The previous year the Magnuson Stevens Act, establishing the 200-mile limit, had been signed into law. The map represented Clem’s vision of what was newly available for Alaskans to harvest and process in this new world, and how and where those products were to be transported.

As a 24-year-old, I was enthralled. The man’s vision captured me. This could be accomplished, and I wanted to be part of it. Clem enthusiastically stoked my emotions. “You can be part of this future if you want,” he said. And thus started my career in Alaska’s seafood industry.

Clem did not have a lot of patience. He knew what needed to be done and could not understand why others could not see it the same way. He was not a fan of lengthy debate. During endless testimony before the North Pacific Council, of which we were both members at the time, there were 100 or more people lined up to testify on inshore/offshore (the first major allocation battle in the North Pacific). Finally, Clem reached his limit: “Enough testimony, let’s just vote!” The legal beagles cringed, but we got through it.

On another occasion, the Council was taking lengthy testimony on the proposed halibut individual fishing quota (IFQ) program, of which Clem was a strong proponent. Testimony was raucous, personal and very heated. It was also broadcast live on Kodiak radio. I was sitting next to Clem at the Council table during a break. Suddenly, Clem turned to me and started to profanely offer his opinion of positions held by the anti-IFQ people testifying. After a minute or so, one of the Council staffers rushed up to us and said, “Clem, they are still broadcasting live!”

Finally, at one of those meetings, Clem had enough of my equivocation on some subject, turned to me and said, “Larry, you have to learn to rise above your principles.” It was many years before I understood the meaning and wisdom behind that comment: Sometimes sacrifice and compromise is necessary to accomplish greater things in the future.

Clem was capable of outlandish statements and observations, and relished it. It was his sense of humor on display. As Clem’s late wife, Diane, told me one time, “Clem has embarrassed me many times, but he has never made me ashamed.” That’s vintage Clem Tillion.

Much has been said about Chuck’s start here in Alaska, how the farm boy showed up from Tennessee seeking to earn money for college. He soon discovered he could make more in Alaska than he ever could on a farm in Tennessee, so he stayed.

He built a shoreside processing plant in Akutan, focusing on Pacific cod. Foreign fishing was still going strong in those days. He produced a lot of salted cod and sold it to Portugal. Something went wrong with the sale and Chuck was never paid what he was owed. About the same time, the Akutan plant burned to the ground. In the midst of these obstacles – competition from foreign fishing fleets, not getting paid for the cod, and the fire – many thought the combination was the end for Trident. Not so. He hung in there, and with the help and support of co-owners and friends, rebuilt what has now become the largest seafood processing facility in North America.

In the 1990s, a class action lawsuit was filed against all the major processing companies operating in Bristol Bay. The suit alleged price fixing. It was extraordinarily emotional on all sides, like a civil war. Facing huge potential legal costs and an unpredictable outcome, one company after another settled out of court, in some cases paying tens of millions of dollars. Ultimately, there was one company left that refused to settle: Trident Seafoods. “We are innocent,” Chuck maintained, “and will not settle under any circumstances!” Eventually, Chuck had his day in court and won — a huge victory, the hallmark of a man who refused to be cowed.

A few weeks later, I saw Chuck at his Seattle office. I congratulated him on his great victory. Hardly acknowledging my comment, he quickly changed the topic: “Are you really going to build that harbor in St. George?” He was already off to other battles.

During one of the inshore/offshore debates before the North Pacific Council in 1989, Chuck personally testified before the Council. This was an extremely rare thing for him to do. He introduced himself, fidgeted, worked his mouth back and forth a few times, and finally stated: “I don’t want to make any permanent enemies. …”

That was the essence of the man, that showed his mettle. He understood there would be occasions when it would be necessary to disagree with people he was close to and liked, but he savored the future opportunity to become friends and allies once again, down the road, when friendship would once again be possible. He always built for the future.

Finally, Chuck was a people person. He almost always had a kind word and a helping hand. One friend of mine, Bill Shaisnikoff, related this story to me. Bill had recently started a business in Unalaska, on the road way out of town. Bill was working outside and a Trident truck pulled up. Chuck got out and introduced himself. Bill asked why Chuck had stopped. Chuck said that he heard Bill was starting a new business, and wanted to support him. “Whatever you produce, we will buy,” he said. And he proved good to his word.

My condolences to both families. We are fortunate to encounter giants in our lifetimes, and even more fortunate to benefit from their achievements. These two men were key players during the formative time of a young Alaska. Thank God they were here.

Larry Cotter is the retired CEO for APICDA, one of six community development quota groups. He was a voting member on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council from 1986-1992, and has served on numerous boards and commissions related to the seafood industry.

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