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Women in Fishing Find Their Passions, Help Others:

Comprising a small group in a large and unforgiving industry that is Alaskan fishing, women persevere through extreme conditions, long hours, little sleep, and little to no contact with the outside world. But they keep returning, summer after summer, to catch what can’t be found on the mainland, something that’s a little different depending on who you’re asking. Three North Sound-based women who fish for a living tell about their passions, onshore and off.

Elma Burnham, Courtesy of Elma Burnham

ELMA BURNHAM, BELLINGHAM
When women approach Alaskan fisherman Elma Burnham and ask what it takes, she usually checks their mental aptitude. Can you work long hours with little sleep? Can you handle doing the same thing over and over again? But another important question exists: Can you find a safe boat?

Burnham’s organization, Strength of the Tides, aims to form community between women in maritime industries while simultaneously educating them on how to enter the industry safely. The organization’s “pledge” certifies a captain’s support for women in fishing and promises work free of harassment. This way, women new to fishing can easily identify a trustworthy boat. Strength of the Tides also shows young women the possibility of fishing. “If a young girl can’t see older women working alongside men or running her own boat or captaining a boat, she might not understand that that’s available to her,” said Burnham.

Tele Aadsen, Photo by Joel Brady-Power

TELE AADSEN, BELLINGHAM

Tele Aadsen sold her first catch for the price of an ice cream. She’d fish off the dock in Sitka, Alaska, with many other “boat kids.” She knew then that fishing would remain a constant in her life. But life inevitably changed. Her parents split, the family boat was sold, and she began noticing signs of casual sexism and bigotry in fishing.

When she was 20 she left the fleet. It would be years before she returned. But when she did, Aadsen had something many women entering the industry did not: know how. “I knew what boats I wanted to work on and who I wanted to work with,” Aadsen said.

She joined up on a boat with some childhood friends. People she could trust. Today, she fishes with her husband and cat with 33 seasons behind her, recognizing just how lucky she was to know who to fish with safely.

Nelly Hand, Photo by Camrin Dengel

NELLY HAND, GUEMES ISLAND

Nelly Hand has never spent a year in one place. A fisherman since 16, Hand’s home has changed with the seasons. Traveling to and from Alaska’s Bristol Bay with her family, Hand worked long days, slept scarcely, and grew accustomed to life as an Alaskan fisherman (the preferred term, rather than “ fisherwoman.”). “It’s become very ingrained in me, this two-fold life,” Hand said.

Hand currently runs a boat with her husband, fishing five species of salmon over a six-month period. Their company, Drifter’s Fish, delivers fresh-caught, sustainably-captured salmon to various local communities. With a life centered around Alaskan fisheries, Hand has a passion for salmon preservation. So, she and her husband fish only what they need, leaving the rest to swim upriver.

Fishermen aren’t known for their political power. But to independents like Hand, the communities they feed show that there are people beyond fishermen that care about salmon.

For these women, Alaskan summers are sketched through the hardships they held, the communities they fostered and the fish caught and fed to far reaches. Fiercely independent, they do have something in common: They spread the values of fresh, sustainably-caught salmon by connecting fishermen to the plates they fill, be it through co-ops, restaurants, or local markets.

"Burnham’s organization, Strength of the Tides, aims to form community between women in maritime industries while simultaneously educating them on how to enter the industry safely. "