The waters off the coast of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands are some of the roughest on Earth, and making a living in this part of the world is not easy. It takes a certain kind of person—unwaveringly bold but firmly grounded—to find success.
Like the salmon they built their livelihood on, Emma Laukitis and Claire Neaton have had to brave the immense pressures of the sea, all in the process of founding their company, Salmon Sisters, a commercial fishing and outfitters business based in the Aleutians. The sisters have been fishing with women their entire lives, and Emma says that “in fishing culture, women are treated the same as men and are judged solely on the quality of the work they do.” Being raised in Alaska around strong female fishermen helped them realize they could start their own business, but even with this support, it wasn’t exactly an easy swim upstream to get Salmon Sisters to where it is today.
Preserving A Piece Of Alaska
Emma and Claire have always had a close relationship with the ocean, having partially grown up on their parents’ fishing boats. Despite their upbringing, the pair weren’t always set on following in their parents’ footsteps to become professional fishermen. “There was a year or two after graduating college when we were unsure if fishing would be our careers,” Claire says. “But we missed the freedom of working outside all day and being in tune with the seasons and the ocean.” Claire is more business-minded, while Emma studied art and design. They decided to found Salmon Sisters in 2012 as a way to highlight their love of Alaska’s fishing culture and to blend their individual skill sets into the company of their dreams. It’s a passion project as much as it is a full-time entrepreneurial endeavor.
The sisters still fish side by side with their parents, and the sense of family and community they grew up with is the same atmosphere they bring to Salmon Sisters. Living in a place where a closeness to nature is paramount has given them a rare perspective on the planet and how to care for it—an outlook they promote day in and day out. “It feels good to be connected to the land where you grew up,” says Claire. “To know the rocks and rivers on the beach, the eagle’s and the raven’s call, the way salmon swim in schools along the shore—all of this has given us a real sense of stewardship in our adult life, and we’ve dedicated our work to celebrating this relationship with the environment.”
Sustainability is always the number one goal when it comes to their operation. They understand that, in order to have a successful business for years to come, preservation needs to be a part of the equation. The pair credits Alaska’s sustainably minded management practices for the thriving fisheries. Their fishing schedule is regulated by strict conservation laws to ensure the safety of the ecosystem, and fishermen work side by side with scientists, conservationists, and legislators to create the most responsible practices possible.
All of the wild salmon, halibut, and other seafood they catch is sold through Salmon Sisters’ three storefronts, as well as online. Everything, from the smoked sockeye strips to the spices and rubs, is processed, packaged, and distributed by the company’s onshore processors, which have a long history of partnership with fishing families from across the state, according to the sisters.
Catch And Clothing
With years of fishing experience under their belts, the other side of Salmon Sisters has been creating products to make the lives of fishermen and other outdoor enthusiasts easier. Their lines of specialty boots, jackets, and other gear are designed to be tough enough to withstand harsh conditions—without sacrificing comfort and personal style. All of the garments and other items, such as paper goods and kitchenware, are designed by the sisters and are produced in partnership with small makers and print shops within the state, which helps keep the operation grounded, community-minded, and supportive of other local artisans.
Though their business is not based solely on commercial fishing, Emma and Claire still spend a few months each summer out at sea. The waters around the Aleutian Islands can be punishing. The weather is not always ideal, the boat can be cramped, and, despite the closeness of the crew, it can get lonely being away from the mainland for so long. It can also be hard to achieve a balance between the business operations side on land and the goings-on aboard ship. They note that fishing is such an all-consuming practice, if you aren’t in check mentally and physically, you can put yourself and others in harm’s way. It’s serious business.
The sisters compare life on the ship to going on a backcountry expedition. Each ship in their fleet houses two to five women for the summer. The crew does everything together—eating, sleeping in bunks, and fishing—so learning to work together, trust each other, and keep each other’s spirits up is essential for the success of the trip. “We’re often in very remote places where there are no towns to get groceries or supplies,” Emma says. “You have to be self-reliant and resourceful. You learn to have mental and physical grit—to keep fishing even though your body aches.”
On top of its seafood, outerwear, and gear, Salmon Sisters also promotes other ways for people to forge a connection with the Alaskan wilderness and the people who live there. In 2016, the sisters launched the Give Fish Project, which puts 1 percent of the company’s profits toward the purchase of seafood products for the Food Bank of Alaska. So far, Salmon Sisters has been able to donate over 100,000 cans of wild-caught salmon to the food bank. With natural, healthy food at the core of the company’s mission, the sisters also continually share their favorite family recipes on the Salmon Sisters blog and just released their first cookbook.
A Personal Investment
Emma and Claire have not only turned Salmon Sisters into a successful business but also set an example of what is possible when you use your talent and passions for the greater good. Since the founding of the Salmon Sisters brand, they’ve learned their ability to make an impact extends much farther than they ever imagined. “How to invest in ourselves, our skills, and our community is at the forefront of what we’ve learned as business owners,” Emma says.
“Having a strong foundation that supports and inspires us has been essential to our success and the joy we’ve found.”
The sea, as trying and insurmountable as it can sometimes be, has given the sisters so much to be thankful for, and it is at the center of who they are as Alaskans and as people. They say storytelling is an integral part of life on the water, and they have created an entirely new story—one that shows the fearlessness of the women who brave the waves to sustain their communities.
For more info visit aksalmonsisters.com