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Doing What We Love: Stories from an all-Female Gillnetter in Bristol Bay, Alaska

By: Lillian Saul, Graduate student researcher, OFI Module I

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Part I: The Day the Fish Came

I am a deckhand on an all-women gillnetter in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Working on an all-women boat in the commercial fishing industry in North America is a rare opportunity. While a large number of women are involved in the sockeye salmon drift gillnet fishery, only a few own and operate their own vessels (around 3%). After commercial fishing for six years for and around largely males in Maine and Alaska, being on an all-women boat was incredibly profound for me in ways that I least expected. We aren’t as strong as the male deckhands, but we are gentle on the nets and on the fish. Our skipper, Fran, told us to “woman-handle” the fish because they become less bruised when we pick them out of the net and fall onto the deck. Fran has successfully run gillnetters in Bristol Bay for over thirty-five years, starting out as one of just three women captains. 


In Bristol Bay, daily life is defined by close living and working quarters. Vessel length is limited to 32 feet, and on our boat we had four crew and the skipper—five in total. 32 feet is a relatively small space for five people to live! We are fortunate because our boat has a head (bathroom), shower, and is spacious compared to many of the other gillnetters. Once the boat enters in the water, it does not return to shore for the duration of the season, which lasts about six weeks. The characters and personalities onboard make or break a fishing season. The gratitude and appreciation I felt for my deck-mates, who created an unconditionally supportive and loving environment I thought was not possible to achieve in this industry, often brought tears to my eyes. Many of us would say it is the mental rather than physical aspects of the fishery which are most challenging. Our crew was endlessly positive and motivated. We giggled in a man’s world. We chatted all summer long while we picked fish out of the net. We told stories. We had our own magical world. We sang out joyously as the net filled with salmon, screeched with laughter at every comedic relief, and waved furiously to all the other boats. Many of which were all male and, taking themselves too seriously, never waved in return.


Map showing Bristol Bay, which feeds into the Berring Sea


Map showing a close-up of the Nushagak River

The Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run, situated in Alaska’s Bering Sea, is extremely short-lived and, especially in recent years, incredibly productive. It is the largest salmon run on earth. Each summer 1500 mostly aluminum 32-foot gillnetters enter the six massive river systems in Bristol Bay and attempt to catch sockeye as they swim up the rivers to spawn. Millions upon millions of fish return, according to genetic codes, to the exact same river where they were born after a lifetime (2-3 years) of wandering the open ocean. Up the river, if they are not consumed by the bears or the birds—if they are not caught in the 5-inch monofilament diamonds of our nets—they lay their eggs in a lake and die. Scientists attempt to calculate exactly how many salmon should be caught by the fishing fleet and how many should swim up the rivers for ideal ecosystem balance. However, much remains a mystery about the complexity of these beings. No one really knows, for example, where the sockeye swim during their lives on the open ocean, or why the fish leap out of the water, flinging themselves skyward, as they make their journeys home.


When the fish arrive in Bristol Bay, they arrive at once—a solid wall of sockeye swimming into the mouths of the rivers. At the end of June, the fishing goes from zero to one hundred in a matter of hours. However, the fish are not easy to catch. They are here, there or the other place—never everywhere, all at once. The goal for a fishing boat, obviously, is to be where the fish are

Picking fish on the gillnetter

Most of the boats in Bristol Bay fish in radio groups. Members of each group report to each other how the catch is in certain areas, attempting to locate the most productive area. When the salmon arrived this summer, we were fishing in the Nushagak district. The Nush (short for Nushagak) River is a great river to fish, but it is very large (20 miles across). In a larger district, such as the Nush, having a huge engine with a light hull is a great advantage because it allows boats to travel fast to reach fish in the matter of minutes, rather than hours. Some of the gillnetting boats in Bristol Bay travel up to 35 knots or more. Our boat is slow, meaning when the fish are far away, it is nearly impossible to get to them before they swim into a new area or are caught by other boats.


On the morning of June 29th, the sun had not risen yet, but the sky was already full of light. We had been fishing on the West Line of the district with little luck through the couple hours of darkness (it was light nearly 24 hours a day in June). Our skipper received a call on the radio from another group member—a report of a few fish on the North Line to the inside of the district. We were elated. The tide was flooding, so instead of traveling at our normal snail’s pace of 7 knots, we were traveling at 10. We finally arrived in the shallow mouth. The water frothed and bubbled, breakers came over the stern, and there were no fish. The sun finally rose above the horizon and a show of red and yellow flashed across the sky. A flood plane jetted overhead and all the boats competed against each other—for no fish.


Out on deck, we overheard commotion on the group radio. Our skipper was speaking feverishly with some of the other group members. “Jumper” is what we call a salmon jumping out of the water. We are always on the lookout for jumpers. Well, apparently there were jumpers. Thousands of them. More jumpers than anyone had seen in their entire lives. They were eleven miles away, all the way at the southern edge of the district towards the open ocean. The tide was flooding, which had allowed us to get here rather quickly. But to get to the south end, we would have to go in the opposite direction, bucking against the tide. The mass of fish seemed an eternity away. In that moment, in that world, it felt like utter and absolute devastation. Complete failure.


We were a very chatty crew. But on this morning, we were dead silent. We listened intently to the radio—“This is the greatest moment of my life.” “I’ve never seen so many fish in my life!” “My net is sunk!” “Multiple clatters going at once!” (Clatter is when a group of fish swims dramatically into the net making a lot of splashing on the water surface.) We were eleven miles away with a 2-hour journey ahead of us. All we could do was sit, listen, wait, and watch the waves roll by. I might have jumped into the ocean and started swimming behind the boat, if I thought it would make us go any faster.


Five hours later, we had completely forgotten the morning’s melancholy. All 8 fish holds were full to the brim, the deck was loaded, the net was hauled onto the deck, nearly plugged with fish. It would be one of the biggest offloads our skipper ever had. That night, we did it all over again. The next two days, boats in the Nushagak consecutively broke the record for most fish caught in one river district in a 24-hour period. Four weeks later and the scientists were reporting the largest sockeye salmon run Bristol Bay had ever seen.

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Written by Lillian Saul

Lillian Saul is a Master's student in the Geography Department at Memorial University, funded by the Ocean Frontier Institute's Module I. She works in sub-module I-3 investigating 'Perceptions, Values and Knowledge' of small-scale fisheries in Newfoundland and Labrador. She has a background in commercial fisheries and is interested in studying governance in Newfoundland fisheries, specifically as it relates to the interaction between law and policy and coastal fishing communities. 

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