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. 

Winter Citrus Butter Salmon

Total time:
  • 1 garlic clove minced
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 blood orange thinly sliced
  •  tablespoons unsalted butter melted
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs basil, oregano, sage, thyme, etc
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 blood orange segmented and chopped
  • 1 cara cara orange segmented and chopped
  • 1 small shallot diced
  • 1/2 jalapeno pepper seeded and diced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro
  • juice of 1 lime
  • pinch of salt and pepper
  1. Preheat the broiler in your oven to high and set the oven rack about 6 inches below it.
  2. Place the salmon on a baking sheet. In a bowl, stir together the brown sugar, salt, pepper, garlic and lemon zest. Add the olive oil to make a wet rub. Rub the mixture all over the salmon. Place the blood orange slices on top.
  3. Broil the salmon for 6 to 8 minutes, or until just opaque and flakey with a fork. Drizzle with the herb butter and serve with the winter citrus salsa.


*Recipe and Photo by Jessica Merchant

Honey Garlic Butter Salmon

This meal can be prepared in under a half an hour. Plus, it has the added benefit of being cooked in a foil pouch to make clean up a breeze. If you prefer a crispier finish, bake in the over for 12-14 minutes, then finish on the grill. 
Recipe Inspired by: Karina, Cafe Delites
Serves: 4
⅓ cup honey
¼ cup butter
4 large cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (juice of ½ a lemon)
Whole sockeye fillet – about 1.5 lbs
Sea salt, to taste
Cracked pepper, to taste (optional)
Lemon slices (to serve)
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
  1. Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a baking tray with a large piece of foil, big enough to fold over and seal to create a packet.
  2. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over low-medium heat. Add the honey, garlic and lemon, and whisk until the honey has melted through the butter and the mixture is well combined.
  3. Place the salmon onto lined baking tray. Pour the butter/honey mixture over the salmon, and using a pastry brush or spoon, spread evenly over the salmon. Sprinkle with a good amount of salt (about 1 1/2  teaspoons) and cracked pepper. Fold the sides of the foil over the salmon to cover and completely seal the packet closed so the butter does not leak.
  4. Bake until cooked through (about 15-18 minutes, depending on the thickness of your fish and your preference). Open the foil, being careful of any escaping steam, and grill for 2-3 minutes on medium heat to caramelize the top, if desired. Garnish with parsley and serve immediately topped with lemon slices.

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

Cooked fillet of bristol bay sockeye salmon

Direct to Door opens Monday 9/23

A reminder for you! 

Our Direct to Door program will be open for orders of 2019 Bristol Bay sockeye portions and fillets Monday, September 23rd. After another successful fishing season, we are ready to offer the high quality sockeye you have been waiting for. Stock your freezer with our 20 lb. case (or save a little room for ice cream,) with our NEW 10lb. case. Whichever option you choose, both are shipped directly to your door for FREE!

We have also been working closely this year with our processor, Leader Creek Fisheries, to make significant improvements on the durability of the packaging of our products by increasing the thickness of vacuum packs and reinforcing the seals (more on this coming soon).  We remain dedicated to providing the freshest, highest quality salmon delivered from our nets to your door!   

Be on the lookout for our newsletter announcing the launch on Monday. If you don’t already subscribe, you can sign up at the bottom of our homepage to begin receiving our most up to date information, recipes and news from Bristol Bay! 


The Folks at Pride of Bristol Bay

Summer Recap- Our 2019 season in Bristol Bay

The fishermen of Pride of Bristol Bay saw a busy, successful season! 

“Patience is the word of the year.” 

Most people will never know the intensity of working on a gill netter in Alaska; it is a unique and exciting experience! We wanted to give you our take on the Bristol Bay season aboard our summer home to shed some light on our dedication to sustainability and quality in our product. 

“Patience is the word of the year,” said Captain Steve Kurian of the F/V Ava Jane as he reflected on this year’s Bristol Bay salmon season.

Many of you who fish for fun may be familiar with this feeling, but on the commercial grounds it can feel like it all happens at once and that no patience is required. Well, that was not the case this year as the weather was “hot, dry and flat” according to the fishermen. This change in situation required captains and crews put in extra effort to seek out the fish and steadily pick their way through the gear towards a successful season. 

Most bay fishermen enjoyed a lack of rough weather this year, but the fish follow those patterns as well. If the Bering Sea blows a strong wind into the river system, the fish certainly come with it. When there’s a light, consistent breeze, the fish make their way to their spawning grounds upriver from the fishing districts as always – just at a bit of a slower pace. As the Alaska General Seafood – Naknek beach boss, Joe Stewart put it on the final KDLG Fisheries Report of the year,

“It was a great season,” Stewart said. “Record number of fish, very steady, not the big waves of fish like usual.“ That was the experience on the Ava Jane this year, which served the new guys very well. This way, there was a bit more time to learn the ropes and get their sea legs.

Pride of Bristol Bay is grateful for the fish that came through as well as the local community who supported the team when the boat had a brief, but significant electrical breakdown. Yet again, patience was the word of the year. The boat was towed into Naknek by another member of the fleet (a tender) and fixed within just a few days. Thankfully, this occurred early on, and she was back in operation on June 26th. 

On a bay-wide level, the returns of sockeye are encouraging for ocean health. The Bristol Bay watershed saw a total run of 56.3 million salmon return to the river system this year. The harvest was the second largest on record, distributed in five river systems and closely monitored by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. Again, this year saw another strong run in a world of much uncertainty. The weight of Pebble Mine, and the disappointing summer news about backroom (or Air Force One) deals, certainly weighed on the summer, but we are encouraged by an uptick in mobilizing around the issue in the community – noting more t-shirts, flags, and stickers rocking the bold “No Pebble Mine” logo. 

Thanks to all of you who share our dedication, and for following along with this issue on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We see you working to spread the message to your friends and family.  Finally, we thank you for your patience as we found our own sea legs over the past year. Keep an eye on our social media as we share more about summers lived by the wind, tide and fish!