This summer Jessica Normandeau ’15 set sail on her newest business venture: captain of a 32-foot vessel in Bristol Bay, Alaska. With grueling 18-hour workdays and a lot of creative problem solving, she’s part of a small percentage of women sustainably harvesting fish from the world’s largest, completely wild, sockeye salmon run.
“My first season as a deckhand, I fell in love with it,” says Normandeau, who picked up the summer job in 2015 to keep her winters free for skiing and travel. “I blinked, seven years went by, and it was time for me to decide if I wanted to do something more traditional. I took a chance and bought into commercial fishing.”
Under the guidance of a boat broker, and with capital gleaned from her hard-earned savings account, Normandeau purchased a 1980 Bristol Bay gillnetter, Leila M. When her boat launched this summer, she added her name to a short list of women boat captains in Alaska.
“It’s interesting to see the generally male-dominated industry shifting to have more women involved,” she says. “I worked for a woman captain and it was inspiring. Every year there’s a growing number of women fishing captains and at the end of the day, we’re all out there contributing to the same fishery.”
Normandeau’s operation utilizes gillnet fishing, aptly named to describe how the silver-coated fish wedge their way into mesh nets. The practice involves submerging a net that is 150 fathoms, or 900 feet long, into the water before using a hydraulic reel to pull the fish onto the boat deck.
“There are different techniques for getting them out and it takes time to learn,” says Normandeau. “It's high stakes. An 18-hour work day isn’t uncommon and it’s hard work. Sometimes the weather is rough and it throws you around the boat, but it’s taught me just how tough I can be.”
According to the World Wildlife Fund, the crystal-clear waters of Bristol Bay produce about 46 percent of the globe’s wild sockeye salmon harvest. The industry is highly regulated by Alaska's Department of Fish and Game and the United States Environmental Protection Agency to ensure the salmon population thrives for generations to come.
Normandeau’s secondary business, Slipstream Sockeye, sells the salmon direct to consumers via pre-order.
“I'm proud to be supplying a protein source for people around the world that's state-managed,” says Normandeau, explaining that conservation regulations go way beyond limitations on net and boat size. “We can’t put our nets in the water until a certain amount of salmon have escaped upstream to spawn, and we have to adhere to strict guidelines on district boundaries and the hours in which we can fish,” she says, adding that she must keep the salmon in freezing water once on deck and is required to regularly transfer her catch to larger boats to take to shore so the fish stay fresh.
When she’s not navigating the shores of Bristol Bay or immersed in courses about diesel engines and hydraulic boat systems, the former art and art history and English double major is hitting the ski slopes and reflecting on her adventures.
“Writing is a way for me to better understand my own experiences. I find a lot of inspiration from place. My liberal arts education gave me the skills to learn and think creatively in a lot of different situations. It’s helped me along the way. You have to work hard and play hard, that’s the St. Lawrence mentality.”