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Know your Fisherman:

Frances Bursch

Frances grew up set-netting with her family in Pilot Point on the Ugashik River and has been commercial fishing for 9 years. She currently co-owns a direct-market business, Wild North Salmon Source.

“Fishing provides a critical balance to the rest of my life - it's so important for me to disconnect from my other jobs, email, social media and just focus on the tasks at hand.”

 

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How did you get into fishing?

I was born into it! Every summer since we were babies my sister and I had a nanny at our set-net camp while my parents each ran skiffs. We were wild and muddy little kids who started helping out as we became capable.

Do you own your own boat?

I do not; my mom has a big set net camp and my dad and little sister each have drift boats so I am the only family member without. They all need help though so I always have a deckhand job!

"I am proud to be the second generation of women in my family fishing in Bristol Bay. While there are some added challenges to being a woman fisherman it makes me so happy to see more and more women on boats."

Tell us about your business.

My boyfriend and I started a direct market business in 2017 called Wild North Salmon Source. We supply CSA-style shares of our catch to people in Crested Butte and Denver, CO. It has been a really positive experience; people I meet outside of Alaska are always so curious about fishing and it has been a fulfilling connection to be able to share the delicious salmon we caught. We are very proud of our product and we have gotten super positive feedback from our customers, people love it and that feels really good.

I am so proud of the product that comes off of our boat and out of Bristol Bay in general. That is my favorite part about having a direct market business is getting to share something so good and pure that we worked really hard for with people who appreciate it. I like to tell people it is one of the last truly wild and healthy salmon runs. It is important for consumers to understand that our fishing time is managed by biologists who have the salmon’s best interest in mind. This is very different from a lot of other fisheries and it is important to a growing number of consumers who care about the source and sustainability of what they are eating.

It is also important to respect the salmon as more than a source of protein or money. The salmon runs in Bristol Bay are powerful lifeblood, not only for fishermen now, but for the Native people who have always depended on the salmon, for the animals and the ecosystems.

What makes you return to Bristol Bay each fishing season?

Fishing provides a critical balance to the rest of my life - it’s so important for me to disconnect from my other jobs, email, social media and just focus on the tasks at hand. Though fishing is really hard work, there is a simplicity that I think so many of us are missing in the rest of our lives. There is something fulfilling on a level I don’t even fully understand about working with my body and waking and sleeping by the tides. When I am on the boat, my world is fairly small and uncomplicated. I also love coming home at the end of the season; my tiny house and drawers full of clean clothes feel so luxurious!

Whom do you typically fish with? Tell us about your crew.

I have worked on my dad’s boat for the last 6 years and my sister bought her boat 3 years ago; we fish as a team. Sometimes my crewmates are cousins or friends I grew up with and sometimes I haven’t met them until the season starts. While social dynamics can be the most challenging part about working on boats, getting to know the other crew has always been one of my favorite parts about the fishing season.

What is it like being a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay?

Bristol Bay is one of the more remote places in Alaska. It takes four days to arrive by boat, or a flight. Even when you get off the boat the towns are really tiny, no stores or restaurants, just some houses. When you arrive you have to be prepared with everything you need for the next two months.

You eat, work, sleep on a 32-foot boat. Less than half of that is living space. No matter what you reach for or where you try to go onboard, someone will be in your way! Boat life is kind of a (usually frustrating) dance where you’re constantly moving around each other.

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We fish with nets that are made of clear nylon thread, kind of like fishing line. The nets are 900 feet long, 9 feet deep and hang like a curtain in the water. Fish swim into the nets and if they are the right size, they get stuck. Much of the work is untangling the salmon from the net and getting them gently into the refrigerated seawater right away. There is always something to do, always things to fix, prepare, organize, clean, improve or replace.  People tend to either hate it or love it.

I am proud to be the second generation of women in my family fishing in Bristol Bay. While there are some added challenges to being a woman fisherman it makes me so happy to see more and more women on boats, especially running boats. I feel like I have noticed more and more in even the last 5 years! We definitely owe a lot to the women in past generations for taking risks and standing their ground to get deckhand jobs and make fishing more of a possibility for women.

Do you have any unique fishing traditions that you do during the season?

We always make sure the whole crew kisses the first salmon of the season and releases it so that the next generations will be strong. We also have a tradition of going camping in the Ugashik Lakes at the end of the season. The lakes are the most pristine and wild place I know and there is something special about being at the destination of all those salmon we chased all summer.


 

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