Steve and Jenn’s 2020 boat crew in Bristol Bay. (Courtesy Photo / Steve Kurian)

Steve and Jenn’s 2020 boat crew in Bristol Bay. (Courtesy Photo / Steve Kurian)

Pride of Bristol Bay: A Conversation with Sockeye Salmon Guru Steve Kurian

It was love at first sight — or maybe taste — for Steve and Jenn and sockeye salmon.

By Bjorn Dihle

In 2002, when Steve Kurian graduated from college in Pennsylvania, he moved west to Idaho to take a job in forest management. There, Steve rented an apartment from an old, crusty commercial Alaska fisherman who told stories of an ocean chock-full of salmon, sea monsters and a real-son-of-a-buzzard white whale that ate one of his crewmembers the season before. Steve wasn’t quite shanghaied, but the old man’s stories were enough to make him quit his job and go setnetting in the Naknek district of Bristol Bay. His then girlfriend and now wife, Jenn—the two have been together since they were 15—got a job fishing a neighboring setnet.

“I loved living by the salmon and the tides, but I couldn’t have picked a tougher guy to fish for. He was relentless. I made $1,400 that season because it was the worse season and price was rock bottom. It only got easier after that,” Steve said.

[True stories from a fishing photographer]

That first season, Steve and Jenn lived in a shack on a bluff. The young couple reveled in the new adventure, hardy lifestyle and people they met. In a way, the region felt raw, even desolate, but then came the biggest run of sockeye salmon left on Earth and the waters and land came alive. It was love at first sight for Steve and Jenn and sockeye salmon. Or, maybe better put, love at first taste. A great bonus of being a fisherman is you get to eat sockeye for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Eating lots of salmon is so healthy that people in the know prefer going commercial fishing than to a fancy spa.

There is one big point of contention with salmon lovers — which species is the best to eat. It’s almost always a toss-up between king and sockeye. This has ruined many marriages, as well as caused countless fistfights and, even, multigenerational blood feuds. Many Alaskans, when asked which species of salmon they prefer, change the subject to something less volatile like politics. Steve is willing to put himself out there and stands firm in his love of sockeye.

“Sockeye is still my favorite. It’s superior to other salmon in texture and taste,” Steve said.

A fillet of Bristol Bay sockeye cooked on a cedar plank. (Courtesy Photo / Steve Kurian)

A fillet of Bristol Bay sockeye cooked on a cedar plank. (Courtesy Photo / Steve Kurian)

The fall after that first season fishing, Steve and Jenn returned to their home state of Pennsylvania, where Steve started an arborist business. Despite not making much money in Bristol Bay, Steve missed living by the tides and salmon. When he returned the following summer, he captained a driftnet boat. This is no small thing for a second-year fisherman. Jacques Cousteau likened Bristol Bay’s driftnet fishery to a bunch of sharks in a feeding frenzy. It takes real skill and nerves of steel to be successful. Steve liked the new challenges and responsibilities he faced. When asked about the stress, Steve just chuckled.

“I was made for Bristol Bay.”

At the end of that season, Steve brought home a couple coolers of sockeye salmon fillets.

“I was so proud to share them with my family,” Steve said.

Steve’s dad was a butcher and Steve grew up working in his shop. He learned young to take the utmost care in processing meat to maximize the taste and quality. His family, like anyone who appreciates the finer things in life, loved the sockeye. A friend suggested that Steve should try to sell some of the extra fillets at the local famer’s market. The sockeye was snatched up so quickly that Steve realized that there was a demand for wild Alaskan salmon that wasn’t being met. Steve and Jenn promptly created their business, Wild for Salmon, which offers wild and sustainably caught sockeye salmon and numerous other seafood products to customers ranging from individuals, to restaurants to health food markets. In 2018, the couple bought, Pride of Bristol Bay which is a fisherman direct seafood marketer company that specializes in delivering Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon to customer’s doorstep.

The Kurian family (Courtesy Photo / Steve Kurian)

The Kurian family (Courtesy Photo / Steve Kurian)

Today, Steve takes the same pride in fishing for and processing sockeye salmon that he did 20 years ago when he brought those first couple coolers of fillets home. Jenn is both his business and fishing partner. The couple give 1% of their sales to fight for the preservation of wild salmon and are staunch supporters of protecting Bristol Bay so people, salmon and other species of wildlife can have a future there. By supporting businesses like Wild for Salmon and Pride of Bristol Bay, you get more than just high quality, delicious and healthy product. You get to take part in directly supporting fishermen and protecting one of the last great fisheries and wilderness left.

Steve’s love of Bristol Bay has only grown with time. He and Jenn winter in Pennsylvania with their two young kids, who, before too long will be fishing the bay with them. As soon as spring comes, Steve gets that familiar itch to head back to the bay.

“When I see the geese fly north, I got to get back to Bristol Bay,” Steve said.

• Pride of Bristol Bay is a free column written by Bjorn Dihle and provided by its namesake, a fisherman direct seafood marketer that specializes in delivering the highest quality of sustainably caught wild salmon from Bristol Bay to your doorstep. It appears monthly in the Empire.

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