Fishermen of Bristol Bay: Elma Burnham

Fishermen of Bristol Bay: Elma Burnham

I’ve been vaguely aware of commercial fishing and the people of the industry, fishermen, since my childhood on Long Island Sound in southern New England. My parents’ office was covered in photos of Alaska – Anchorage, King Cove, salmon on the beach, Utqiaġvik (Barrow), pollock ships – and neighbors all over town had lawns full of lobster buoys and pots. Fast-forward twenty-something years and this type of scenery is part of my everyday, whether chatting with Washington fisherman from my desk in Bellingham, WA, or hauling nets over the roller in Bristol Bay, Alaska. 

I grew up on the water, eventually commuting by boat to the mainland for high school, dodging those same lobster pots. In high school, I worked retail for my step-mom and helped out at other small businesses in our small town. It wasn’t until a trip to my parents’ old stomping grounds following my senior year of high school that I ever considered going to Alaska for work. But the wonders of that trip and the amazing, salty old friends of my family, planted the seed. The next winter I called some of them up and said I was interested in spending a summer away, in Alaska, working and witnessing something totally different than I had known thus far. 

I was 18 my first summer in Bristol Bay, working as a nanny for a family that brought their very young kids to fish camp with them. I helped cook for the crew. I processed and smoked our homepack salmon. I watched as two kids under four made a remote beach their complete and total domain, covered in mud. I fell in love with the rhythm of the work, living tide to tide, building full environmental awareness of weather, buyers, fish movements, camp life. I finally got in a skiff and had the chance to pick some fish during my last few days there and knew there was more to learn.

I’ve been returning to Bristol Bay nine out of ten summers since. Today I fish the Ugashik River, Bristol Bay’s smallest fishery but, weather wise, one of the most brutal. I skipped the summer of 2017, thinking I needed a break and wanting to fairly assess what I was missing during my summers off the grid, head down picking fish out of nets for strangers plates. This summer off is when I found freelance work, helping to tell the story of the fishermen working hard catching fish. I am now a contributor at Pride of Bristol bay where I thoroughly enjoy doing my best to bring Bristol Bay to you, our customer. It can be a tricky place to explain, but we try because we want you to know where your food comes from. We want you to feel part of it –  because you are. 

Despite being presented with other great opportunities, I was desperately clinging to threads from the fishing grounds and realized I wasn’t missing much spending a full summer at home. Sure, summer in the lower 48 means outdoor concerts, long days, bike rides with friends, but with the right gear, you can do that any season. What you can’t do outside of June and July is hand over the keys to the tides, the ways of salmon, the boats, the fellow crew, and all the many systems that make up a summer in Bristol Bay. The most redemptive thing about choosing not to fish that summer was finally growing a real garden. Ironically I found myself coaxing food out of the dirt, getting up early to water it, worrying about predators. I was pouring my pent-up energy into another life-source that is controlled by a zillion other factors other than myself but from which I was trying to produce something worth sharing. 

I was okay at it, but after following along with the Bristol Bay season via tender-delivered postcards and KDLG, I knew fishing was the right way to spend my summers. Now I try with all my might to honor the lives of those who do the same – as Program Manager of Bellingham SeaFeast and founder of Strength of the Tides – which I believe will contribute to the sustainability of our fisheries. Your purchase of wild, sustainable, beloved Bristol Bay salmon supports a food system built on small, family operations like the Kurians, and individuals who work with them, like me and Wil Claussen. Even better, your purchase supports efforts to stop the Pebble Mine, the biggest threat to our wild salmon. Thank you for choosing not only quality and taste but also passion and connection. 

Isn’t that what it’s all about anyway? Finding worth in my work, at a young age, while attending a liberal arts school where confusion about majors, internships, and career paths was paramount, has been a recurring gift. As I pack my bags for the bay each early summer, it feels like a no-brainer. Sure, on a slow fishing day in the rain, I’ll admit I’m writing a long list of other things I could be doing. But in the fall as I map my year, a summer in the bay feels like the simple, straight-forward choice. 

Know your fish: The Sockeye Lifecycle

Know your fish: The Sockeye Lifecycle

The 2019 fishing season was the sixth largest run of all time (Bristol Bay Fishing Report, 2019). The preseason forecast called for a run of 40.2 million sockeye with an actual return of 56.3 million, that is 33% higher than predicted, can you envision what an additional 16 million salmon look like? With such impressive numbers on a large scale, it is easy to overlook the equally impressive life cycle that each individual sockeye has in common.

The name Sockeye comes from a rough translation of the name Suk-Kegh, originating from the Pacific Northwest’s native coast Salish language dating back as far as 6,000 years ago, meaning “red fish.” Sockeye are also known as “blueback salmon” because during their time spent in the ocean they sport a metallic green-blue back which contrasts against their white bellies. And, of course, they are prized for their succulent, bright orange meat. As sockeye return to their spawning grounds, they go through an incredible transformation resulting in a vivid red bodies with bright green heads, hence the name “red salmon.” Males develop a humped back and hooked jaw that differentiates them from the females. This is the final stage in their life cycle.

Now, let’s take a look at the journey that got us here:

  • Sockeye return to spawn in June and July into freshwater river systems and lakes. 
  • Females dig small cavities in the sand and gravel called “redds” with their tails over several days, into which they deposit 2,000-5,000 eggs. Males then swim over these eggs and fertilize them. Both males and females die within a few weeks of spawning.
  •  The eggs hatch in the winter and the “alevins” remain in the gravel, feeding from their yolk sacks until they grow into “fry” and move into rearing areas. Fry will spend one to three years feeding on zooplankton in freshwater lakes. If there are no lakes, the juveniles will travel to the ocean immediately after coming out of the gravel
  • By now the young fish have grown into “smolts,” each weighing a few ounces; they are ready to make their springtime journey into the ocean. 
  • As soon as the fish enter salt water, they begin to experience rapid growth. Sockeye will spend up to five years in the ocean, travelling thousands of miles swimming in the counterclockwise current of the Gulf of Alaska. An adult sockeye can range between 18 and 31 inches and a weight of 4 to 15 pounds.

As mature salmon begin to return to their river systems in June and July, they are ready to be harvested. Tribal and First Nation groups depend on salmon returns not only for subsistence, but many ceremonial aspects of their lives as well. The Alaskan fishing industry also depends on strong salmon runs which can be seen in the thousands of jobs and millions of dollars contributed to the economies of both Canada and the United States. The looming Pebble mine is a direct threat to indigenous people and all Bristol Bay fisheries by potentially having a catastrophic effect on salmon populations, which would directly impact the lives of thousands of people.

Making their way upstream is the final step after their arduous journey, and as the sockeye lay their eggs, another life cycle begins. The mature sockeye die and their bodies provide nutrients that feed the developing salmon, insects, and aquatic plant life. An entire ecosystem, including bears and eagles are supported by spawning salmon…how can we not protect them?

Fishermen of Bristol Bay: Wil Claussen

Fishermen of Bristol Bay: Wil Claussen

Growing up landlocked in Colorado, I never spent much time near the ocean, let alone imagined I would end up as a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay. I recently returned from my second season, and I can’t think of many things in my life I feel this connected to. Hard work and long days, beautiful scenery, catching people’s dinner, and being a part of a unique and competitive community, there are so many layers to being a fisherman and these are only a few. 

I got into this industry after moving to Washington on a whim and becoming fascinated with the boats while visiting Fisherman’s Terminal in Seattle. The rigging, shiny hulls and intricate nets were captivating, I needed to find a way onto a boat and eventually I did. A close friend mentioned to her dad that I was interested in working in Bristol Bay which ultimately led to my start as a deckhand on the F/V Anny Joy.  Cold-water surfing, heli-boarding, commercial fishing, they all require one thing in common – an ability to hone your focus under pressure, and perform. That fleeting moment is something that has become a slight addiction for me and I knew I could find it on a fishing boat. 

I’ll never forget my first season in Bristol Bay. Our captain decided that we would be fishing the Nushagak river, and another seasoned crewmember turned to me and said “The Nush will turn you from a boy into a man, I hope you’re ready.” Really helping my already rattled and overwhelmed confidence, right? It was brutal to say the least. The rain never seemed to stop and I nearly lost it trying to hold on to the few hours of sleep I could get during peak season, while bouncing so hard in rough seas, I thought I was going to hit the bunk above me. This was the moment where I drew the internal question of, “what am I doing here?” A moment that, looking back now, was a turning point for me, but not in the way you would think. 

It took a return trip to Seattle to realize why I was REALLY in Bristol Bay, one that I could have never known until now. Despite the intense working conditions and lack of sleep that pushed me so far out of my comfort zone, it was the bigger picture that I immediately missed within a week of being home. The hard work is just part of it, and is something each Bristol Bay fisherman must embrace, but there are so many other things that bring so many people together for the same reason. Comparing your catch over the radio with other boats, sharing meals and getting through hard times with your crew bring you close enough to feel like brothers. We take a stand against Pebble Mine and sustainably harvest this incredible resource that has nourished communities for many years. Becoming an Alaskan Fisherman quickly went from a paycheck to a form of merit. I couldn’t be more proud of what I do and that is why I continue to return each summer. 

Throughout my time in Bristol Bay I have fished alongside Steve Kurian, Captain of the F/V Ava Jane and owner of Pride of Bristol Bay. At the conclusion of the season, we were on our way to the Naknek airport in an old Ford truck, sharing our passion for fishing and talking about our plans after we get home. He mentioned to me that he was seeking someone to fill a position at POBB, and after hearing what he had to say, I quickly jumped on the opportunity. Fast forward a few months, here I am sharing with you my journey of becoming a fisherman and business developer for Pride of Bristol Bay. 

Commercial fishing has now come full circle, not only am I catching the fish, but helping to build a sustainable, community-driven operation that ships the highest quality sockeye directly to your door. It is an incredibly rewarding experience for me and I am thrilled to be able to share my story here as well as my passion and love of salmon and Bristol Bay. 


Living aboard in Bristol Bay- An insider’s view

Have you ever wondered what it is like to be a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay, or thought you might like to actually sign on as a deckhand? While it certainly is not the experience for everybody, for the fishermen who spend their summers on the water, there is a satisfaction you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else after a long and strenuous season.

Vessels are 32’ feet long, about the same length as two cars parked in line. A little over half of that distance is working deck space which leaves very little space for living quarters. With an average crew of 4 people, space is extremely tight and there is just enough room for 4 bunks and a small galley. Remember though, you are in Bristol Bay to fish, not sleep. Days are long and there is no set schedule-sometimes you begin to fish at 4:00 pm; other times the fish call at 4:00 am. It is this lack of predictability that can be both exhilarating and exhausting for a crew. There isn’t time to worry about much more than eating and basic personal hygiene, especially during peak season. Baby wipes become a primary form of bathing and when you do find downtime to take a shower after a week or more of hard work, it can feel like a life changing experience. It is safe to say you really get to know your crewmembers after 6 weeks of living within arms reach of each other. 

Working on deck is an intense experience. Your hands are blistered and raw – your eyes crusty from the 45-minute nap snuck in while there is a lull in intensity. But, when the majority of fish are making their way from the ocean, and the captain is barking orders from the flybridge, you get a surge of energy because you know NOW is the time to catch as many fish as possible. Rain may be blowing sideways in brisk heavy wind and rough seas easily toss the boat around, but you slip on a dry pair of socks, put on your rain gear, and get to work. 

Occasionally though, the rough seas calm down and the clouds open up to expose some sunshine. Feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin after standing in the rain for weeks, or fishing under a vivid sunset of pink and orange at 1:00 am brings a smile of joy to your face. Adding a fresh brewed cup of coffee makes the feeling that much better, it is the fuel that keeps you going through those long and exhausting days.

You feel the most satisfaction when the season comes to an end and you reflect on what it took to catch 250k+ lbs of sockeye. There are many moments while on the water that a feeling of uncertainty lingers. Will the fish show up? Many fishermen depend on this income to get them through the rest of the year, so things that threaten the return of sockeye, such as Pebble Mine, truly do feel daunting. We are betting on mother nature after all, right?  

It is the many facets of Bristol Bay, difficult and thrilling, that keep us coming back. Fishing is in our blood and we are proud to be the fisherman bringing wild caught salmon from our nets to your table. Thank you for your continued support of what we do!


The folks at Pride of Bristol Bay