Few places are quite so remote as Bristol Bay is. It is the easternmost arm of the Bering Sea that juts into Alaska, a state we picked up only after the Russians had deemed it too inhospitable to live in. The bay’s high tides, shallow depths, and countless shoals and narrows make navigating it by ship about as simple as leash training a frantic puppy on a minefield. What could possibly draw someone to so severe a place? For Grant Niver of Minneapolis, the answer is salmon.
“Most people don’t think of salmon fishing when they think of career paths for Minnesotans,” said Grant, “But my family has a long history in Bristol Bay. My grandpa used to fly cargo planes there, and my dad Mark fell in love with the salmon fishing industry while he worked at a cannery there as a teenager. When he got older he took a job with British Petroleum on Alaska’s oil fields, but he would moonlight as a commercial fisherman on the side.”
Mark so loved salmon fishing that he took an immense risk by building his own boat, the Surrender, in 1997. The 32’ long driftnetter cost him a cool $400,000, and this was back when the salmon business was still taking a hit in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster from eight years earlier. Still, it just wouldn’t do for him but to be the master of his own vessel built to his specifications.
“It’s a family business, to be certain,” Grant continued. “It’s me, dad, and my two brothers Blake and Bryce. We go out for up to five weeks every summer to catch salmon, and spend the rest of that time selling the fish here in the Twin Cities. It’s during those five weeks at sea when we really get to live, though. Bristol Bay is the pure definition of nowhere — as soon as you get off that plane, you’re at least a half day’s travel from anywhere you’d think to call civilization.
“Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. You’re as far as 10 to 15 miles offshore at any given time, and since the salmon are most active when the waters are exceptionally rough, that’s when you’re going to be busiest netting them. We’ve had some pretty close calls, going through 40 mile per hour winds with up to 20,000 pounds of fish on-board, and knowing that you’re going to have to sit tight with an injury for at least a day before you can get to the hospital isn’t comforting. But I wouldn’t trade the bay for anything in the world.”
The salmon of Bristol Bay are by and large considered the very best in the world. That the area has remained so unspoiled by dams and pollution means the salmon live there in exactly the same way that they have for the past several million years. That’s why when you eat sockeye, there’s a coin toss chance it came from this distant pocket of sea.
“Bristol Bay would be the last stop in a salmon’s life even if we didn’t catch it,” Grant explained. “They go there on their way upriver to spawn, which is their last hurrah — the journey inland takes too much out of them to make it a round trip. If salmon fishermen didn’t intervene, the sheer number of them dying would acidify the rivers so much that most of their eggs couldn’t hatch. By allowing a small but healthy percentage of the fish to make it upriver, we ensure that their population remains stable and healthy for commercial fishing. A whopping 62.5 million sockeye returned to Bristol Bay last year, the second largest run in the area’s history.
“We flash freeze all of our salmon as soon as we get it back to land. The technology is amazing, and keeps the fish tasting like it had only just been pulled out of the bay hours earlier. We’ve been having amazing success selling it right here in the Twin Cities — people really like meeting those responsible for making their dinners possible, something they rarely get to do in these parts when it comes to salmon, to say the least. We’re mostly doing business out of farmers’ markets, and we deliver right to our customers’ homes. That way we can get around the expensive shipping fee to offer our salmon for only $16 per pound, plus a $5 delivery fee.”
If you would like to support Minnesota’s salmon fishermen, Surrender Salmon is likely to remain the only way to do so for quite a while. Visit surrendersalmon.com to learn more about their family operation and to order Bristol Bay’s finest right to your doorstep.
By David Scheller