Fishing Bristol Bay on a Woman-run Boat & a Message to the Salmon

Fishing Bristol Bay on a Woman-run Boat & a Message to the Salmon

F/V Seahawk | Captain: Katherine Carscallen
Crew: Elsa Sebastian, Ashley Miller, and Nora Skeele
Words by Nora Skeele | Images by Elsa, Katherine, Ashley

"Last Summer I spent my first season gill-netting on the pristine Yupik, Dena’ina, and Alutiiq watershed of Bristol Bay. Despite the uncertainty of going into the season in the midst of a world-wide pandemic, we caught a good amount of fish and laughed more than I knew possible under such  harsh conditions. As an all women captain and crew, we were able to just be ourselves, which felt really special for all of us; there was a lot more room on deck for vulnerability, honest emotion, and teamwork. Women working together is a beautiful thing and we bonded over the shared adversity, born of mechanical breakdowns, lack of sleep, grueling manual labor, and rough weather." 

Celebrating the first bright, beautiful sockeye of the run.

'Stand on the bow and look like you're having fun!' - Kat

"The Bristol Bay driftnet fishery was an adventure of a lifetime and I hope to return to this amazingly abundant watershed. Coming from Sitka, where fish hatcheries have supplemented our wild runs, I was surprised to see the amount of wild salmon of every species- not just the famous Bristol Bay sockeye salmon we often hear about. "

John, Beth, Marsh, and Nora. Family fishing portrait by aunty Jana Suchy, circa 1991

"I spent my childhood hook-and-line trolling for salmon and longlining for halibut with my family in Southeast Alaska. Every summer, our family of four tucked into our old wooden boat to catch fish, along the rugged coastline of the immense temperate rainforest that is the Tongass. Later, when I was in my twenties, my dad and I started gillnetting together, and we learned to pick fish from the net, side by side. I crewed with dad for many years, with Sitka as my homeport.  All told, I've never missed a salmon season in my 32 years of life and I hope I don’t have to anytime soon. Raised on a fishing boat, salt is in my blood and salmon in my bones. In grade school, my friends had bologna for lunch while I ate abalone, I used kelp strands for jump ropes, and when I found myself alone I befriended sea stars, seals and rat fish."

Sleep is never promised in the Bristol Bay gillnet fishery. Sneaking a few zzz's while Kat and Elsa work on the engine.


Sardine-can style napping


Ashley and Nora prepare a sockeye lunch while anchored up, waiting for the fishery-opening announcement.
Preparing a sockeye lunch while anchored up, waiting for the fishery-opening announcement. 

"The beauty of the commercial fishing lifestyle in Alaska, is both a connection to the ecosystem of land and sea, and after it’s all over, the unbounded time to do what we love. As an adult, this sort of seasonal lifestyle is one I've learned to embrace whole-heartedly. When we're out at sea, we're not worried about anything other than catching fish, eating and sleeping- we're in the present moment. Anyone who has commercial fished, knows that time passes strangely on the ocean, and I think it’s the immediacy of the experience that drives that phenomena. After the fishing season wraps up, and the myriad of small chores are done, I like to take the time to journal, make art, rest and process my experiences. It’s really important to me to advocate for wild places and the fish that are my connection. "

Katherine mends the net 

"Quyana to the people of Bristol Bay for fighting to protect the salmon, their habitat, and the cultures who rely on them. Their work ensures that we may continue this meaningful way of life for many more generations to come."


Message for the Salmon by Nora Skeele


Thank you for your wisdom, resilience, strength and graceful beauty. Thank you for showing me what it is to be wild yet with a strong sense of direction and place. 

Thank you for returning home every summer to the river in which you were born; the same place where you will give birth and where you will die. It is through your return, made year after year so faithfully, that I am reminded of the cyclical, abundant nature of this land and of life. 

Thank you for the ways you enrich nature all around you - most of which we cannot even perceive with our limited human senses, and for the nutrients you have provided for the forest, animals, trees, and humans since the beginning of time.

Our kinship is tied to this special place in Southeast Alaska to which we are both imprinted to return every Summer. It’s one of the few places in the world so intense with nature’s power, 

untainted by man. A rare place where you and I can coexist, adding a sustenance and mutual richness to each other’s lives.  

You are the blood that runs through earth’s venous rivers. I can’t imagine life without you, I cannot imagine this land without you. It surely would not be as vibrant and alive.

Thank you for sustaining me with your clean, light and delicious meat full of protein, minerals, and the essence of the sea. Preparing a meal of salmon I catch translates into my life and makes me feel abundantly provided for, connected to my environment, self-sufficient, deeply grateful and empowered.

Fishing has been the framework through which I’ve learned to love and respect nature. As a fisherwoman, I bow to you, am humbled by you, nurtured by you, nourished by you and related to you.  When I hear you are in peril, I feel grief in knowing that my own family member is endangered. 

I’m sorry for not taking the time to have reverence for each individual one of you I catch and for any salmon I have wasted. I’m sorry for making money off of you and not always giving back to the land in offerings, prayer, stewardship, protection and deep gratitude.

I’m sorry for the way society has tried to cut off communication with the natural world and quiet the voices of indigenous people who celebrated and took care of you since time immemorial. I’m sorry for the way that same money-driven society has monopolized you with no intention of supporting you and your environment. 

Please forgive me, and all of us, who have put you in harm’s way.

I bow to your home, the water, its flowing nature, purity, and potential for renewing, cleansing, and hydrating. Thank you water for supporting all of life.

Thank you rivers for flowing your natural course and for creating sanctuaries, where fresh water meets salt water, where animals can reproduce and thrive -  this birthing zone for so many aquatic creatures.

Thank you salmon for your wisdom, resilience, strength, graceful beauty, for showing me what it is to be wild yet with a strong sense of direction and place.



Character Fishing Lifestyle

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  • In 1990 i made a documentary about women in bristol bay fishery- Making Waves, shown on pbs contact me if you want a dvd

    Donald Blank on
  • This is beautifully written, if I don’t say myself, by my niece, Nora. Really, I can’t say enough about my dear Nora, beautiful inside and out.

    Susan Caffrey on
  • I have never fished commercially or been out on the open ocean for an extended period of time, yet I gained a sense of the experience from the narrative and sensory detail embedded in the article “Fishing Bristol Bay on a Woman Run Boat” and “A Message to the Salmon” by Nora Skeele and, certainly by Elsa, Katherine and Ashley’s images . In reading, the gill-netting venture into Bristol Bay was multi-layered and captured the physicality, the companionship and cooperation involved and the vulnerability and emotional aspects, including all the laughter. It also encapsulated the spiritual nature of living so close to the essence of life that it becomes a part of you. The respect for and honoring of the the natural world, including the harsh elements, the gift of salmon, and the bonding that occurred is deeply felt and honestly communicated.

    I know women to be creative, intuitive, strong, brave, and resourceful. This writing reflected these attributes in specific and varied ways and the images supported the words in an important manner. Nora’s “Message to the Salmon” was like a prayer to me. It embodied the true acknowledgement and awe of all the earth and sea provides and an authentic reverence for the salmon in a way that extends well beyond mind and into the heart. Thank you, Nora. I am so grateful for this writing and these images in these uncertain times. It gave me hope and joy.

    Sherry Chavers on

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