Shaped by the High Seas
Sisters Emma Teal Laukitis and Claire Neaton live with the seasons in Alaska. They shift from sea to land, fishing northern seas and running their business, Salmon Sisters, from shore or—network permitting—their boat.
Text — Marie Charles Pelletier
Photos — Ash Adams
Emma Teal Laukitis and Claire Neaton were born on the Aleutian Islands, an archipelago off the southwest coast of Alaska which sprawls over 1,500 km of the Bering Sea. Growing up in a wild and isolated environment informed every aspect of their lives. Their parents taught the sisters to be self-sufficient, resilient, and creative—survival skills that shape their lives to this day.
As children, the two sisters never lacked for things to do. They spent long days catching salmon with their father for the small family business and afternoons tending plants with their mother.
I reached them by telephone at the beginning of the fishing season. One sister was in Dutch Harbor, Unalaska Bay, and the other in Seattle, waiting for a flight to join her. The distance separating the three of us makes the line crackle.
“From a very young age, Claire and I already felt enormous gratitude toward the land and seas of the North, which give us so much,” explains Emma, her voice full of joy. Utterly connected to their livelihood, they felt part of a greater whole, intrinsically tied to the species living alongside them. “When the salmon run was small, everyone would feel it: our family, the other coastal communities, the brown bears and eagles,” continues Emma.
In 2012 they decided to pay tribute to their coastal heritage by founding Salmon Sisters. The two sisters, now aged 29 and 30, fish and process wild Pacific species including halibut, cod, and sockeye salmon.
They devote their summers to fishing in the deltas and the Bering Sea. Their trips sometimes take several days, especially when they are out longlining halibut. The sisters even run their company remotely— whenever they can get a network signal from their boat. Back on shore, they enjoy helping their mother with her horticultural work, which she continues to this day.
Over the winter Emma and Claire develop inventive marine-inspired projects: frozen wild salmon, fishing gear, clothing, and most recently, a cookbook. In The Salmon Sisters: Feasting, Fishing, and Living in Alaska, they describe their simple Northern lifestyle, the vegetables they pick from the garden, and the wild plants they harvest along the coast and how to prepare them. During the deep cold they also help out with the family business, which runs year-round.
Giving back and going forward
The ebb and flow of the seasons not only allows the sisters to cover all of their interests, it also allows them to give back to their community. In 2016 they founded the Give Fish Project, which supports the local fishing community and contributes to food security in Alaska, where one in seven people don’t have enough to eat. Every year the company donates one per cent of its profits to the Food Bank of Alaska—money that is specifically set aside to purchase wild seafood caught by Alaskan fishers.
Emma explains that Alaska boasts a responsibly managed commercial fishery. The state’s conservation principles mean that they can only fish salmon once enough of them have travelled upstream to spawn. “If fishing were mismanaged, our way of life and our livelihood would eventually disappear. It’s a delicate balance,” she stresses. The government, scientists, and fishers are all working together toward a common goal of enabling future generations to catch and eat wild fish.
“As commercial fishers, our duty is to harvest in the least harmful way possible,” adds Claire. So long as fishing practices remain sound—so long as quotas are respected, habitats are preserved, and pollution is reduced—fisheries will be able to exist without threatening the ecosystem. Alaska’s preventive resource management is considered a model of sustainability around the world.
On a smaller scale, we can make a difference back on shore by varying the contents of our meals. We can start by consuming species from the bottom of the food chain, including algae, bivalves, and fish. “I think the northern seas offer exciting food futures, but we have to change our perception. There’s more than just shrimp and tuna; there’s sardines, geoduck, sea lettuce, and so much more,” maintains Emma. By diversifying our tastes, we can help restore balance in the seas.
Time flows at two different speeds at sea: it’s either breakneck or backward. Daily life on a boat can be extremely intense: the crew sometimes work themselves to exhaustion. But then the tide turns and the winds die down, giving way to moments of calm—often when the boat is travelling between fishing grounds.
“You have to be ready for both modes; that’s why fishing is both a physical and a mental challenge,” explains Emma. Fishing is recognized as one of the most difficult jobs in the world, between the cold, the wind, the lack of sleep, and clothes that never dry. Some days are worse than others: seasickness or discouragement can get the upper hand. Not to mention the increased risk in remote regions. In the event of an accident or mechanical failure, resources may be difficult to access. The uncertainties of their work are numerous, starting with the obvious: Will they catch any fish? How much time is left before the end of the season? How long before they see their loved ones again?
But in spite of it all, the sisters are constantly awed by the spectacle in front of them: the towering mountains, the immense sky, the vast ocean on which they float. Emma and Claire are always discovering pockets of unspoiled wilderness along the most isolated coasts of Alaska. Every time they look up, they marvel at the grandeur and raw beauty of their home.
The sisters have an intimate relationship with nature: the sea and the land are the source of life for their family and their communities.
“They give us our identity,” says Emma, “something to protect, to love, and to defend.” In Alaska, the fishing industry is the largest private sector employer, and most fishing businesses are family-run. Without it, coastal communities—as resilient as they are—could not survive, nor ensure a legacy for their children. Claire explains, “The oceans need our attention. We have to take care of them and leave them in a better state for future generations.”■
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