Norm Pillen has been a Seafood Producers Cooperative (SPC) member since 1987. He started his fishing career as a salmon troller and considers himself a “troller at heart,” but has moved on to longlining for halibut and black cod, in addition to operating a tender boat for SPC during salmon season. “In general, I prefer salmon trolling. To me, it’s art, poetry in motion. It’s such a beautiful craft when it’s done right. There are more variables. There’s friendly competition when you’re trolling for salmon. It’s more exciting…Even when we’re using 100-pound test leader, if you let any slack in the line, a big king salmon can break the line and you lose the fish and the gear and that’s heartbreaking. What’s special about trolling is that you handle every fish you catch. I count 13 times that you handle the fish from start to finish when I fished on our freezer boat the Katie J. And trollers that have pride in what they do take great care to make sure that during each ‘touch’ the fish is softly handled, with great care to time and temperature, avoiding scale loss, to produce a great quality product. We have a responsibility to each fish. ”
Norm early on in his salmon trolling days. Norm says he’s a “troller at heart.”
To diversify his fishing business, Norm moved to fishing for halibut and black cod in 2000. He owned the Sherrie Marie, a modified gulf shrimper built in Palacios, Texas in 1967, which he has since sold to focus on his current operation.
Now, Norm operates the Sea Lion, a power scow built in 1946 for the Alaska Packers Association, as a tender boat for Seafood Producers Cooperative during salmon season. He starts early in March and fishes for halibut and black cod, then moves to the Sea Lion in July for salmon season. “Long lining for halibut and black cod is a little more repetitious,” Norm says. “It’s more about finding fish, fighting currents and winds to do really repetitious work. I wouldn’t bring children long lining—if we’re fishing black cod, we could be 12-25 miles, up to 100 miles out to sea following the continental shelf. Operating the Sea Lion is much safer. I’m harbored up every night. I can spend more time with family. I also get to see all of my fishing friends when they deliver to the tender. I’ve been involved with the fleet a long time. I know people and get to see them more often when I’m tendering.”
Captain Norm on his longliner the Sherrie Marie.
Being a co-op member for over 30 years has taught Norm that you have to look at the long term. Talking about what’s unique about SPC, Norm says “[t]o be around for 70 plus years, like SPC, you’ve got to be conservative when making decisions, but you’ve also got to make bold moves to evolve with the times. It’s a fine balance. We’ve got to do it all without losing sight of our quality-focused mission. As an owner-based company, it’s an inherent risk to be an owner of the co-op, just as it is for any business owner, but we as fishermen are also in charge of something much bigger than when we are when working on our own. It’s our company!”
Norm was born in Michigan, but considers himself Alaskan, as he moved to Kasaan Bay, near Ketchikan, at age 10. At 15, he moved to Port Alexander, on the southern tip of Baranof Island, which is the primary location where he harbors the Sea Lion to serve SPC members who deliver salmon to him.
A while back Norm sent us via Facebook a video of fishing for black cod on the Sherrie Marie. It was a rare combination of good weather, good fishing, good mood, and good music on the boat. The comments it generated from fellow SPC members on Facebook showed a lot about the camaraderie that the co-op is known for when at its best. Long time SPC member Becky Haun perfectly described the video and what it’s like to be an SPC member on a good day: “Flat, calm, sunny, good music to shuffle with, fish on every hook … a perfect day in paradise with Normie and a happy crew. THE BEST SEAFOOD IN THE WORLD! From a bunch of pretty extraordinary independent spirits.”
The Sea Lion, a happy sight for SPC fishermen.