Courtesy Photo / Joanne Teasdale                                Melanie Brown with her children, Mariana and Oliver, fishing Bristol Bay.

Courtesy Photo / Joanne Teasdale Melanie Brown with her children, Mariana and Oliver, fishing Bristol Bay.

Pride of Bristol Bay: Lessons from a Bristol Bay ‘salmon mama’

Salmon runs in in her blood.

By Bjorn Dihle

When Melanie Brown was 10 years old, her mom decided it was time for her to begin fishing the family’s setnet site on the Naknek River in Bristol Bay.

“It was exhausting,” Melanie said, remembering that first season. “Once, when I was really tired, my mom told me to go take a nap in the truck. After a short bit, I ended up sleepwalking back to go fishing.”

[Monkey boats and sailboats: Bringing a Bristol Bay relic back to life]

Salmon runs in Melanie’s blood. She is Yup’ik and Inupiaq — her people have been connected to the salmon, land and waterways of Bristol Bay since time immemorial.

Courtesy Photo / Melanie Brown                                Melanie Brown and her son, Oliver, fishing Bristol Bay.

Courtesy Photo / Melanie Brown Melanie Brown and her son, Oliver, fishing Bristol Bay.

Her great-grandfather, Paul Chukan, commercial driftnet fished Bristol Bay during the end of the sailboat era. Commercial fishermen in Bristol Bay either driftnet or setnet to catch sockeye and other species of salmon. Driftnetting involves the use of a boat and allows fishermen to chase fish across different districts of Bristol Bay. Setnetting involves a specific site operated from the shore that, ideally, lies along the trajectory of where salmon are running. Native women, according to the stories Melanie has heard, came up with the idea of setnetting in Bristol Bay. While the men were away driftnetting, women came up with the idea to motor out a net and stretch it perpendicular to the shore. Women negotiated deals with canneries across the bay and were incorporated into the fishery.

The setnet site just upriver from Melanie’s family was fished by former Gov. Jay Hammond and First Lady Bella Hammond. Jay passed on in 2006, and is remembered as a good, fair and respectful leader by Alaskans across the state. Bella lived alone at the couple’s homestead on Lake Clark until last winter, at the age of 87, when she, too, passed. The Hammonds, like Melanie and the majority of Alaskans, were adamantly opposed to the proposed Pebble Mine. Bella is remembered as a private person, except for when it came to protecting Bristol Bay. Now, the Hammonds’ setnet site is operated by their daughter Heidi.

“They were good, down to earth people. Hardworking people like us,” Melanie said, remembering Jay and Bella Hammond.

[The bears of McNeil and the Pebble Mine project]

Many setnet operations are worked by multiple generations of a family.

Courtesy Photo / Melanie Brown                                Five generations of Bristol Bay commercial fishermen.

Courtesy Photo / Melanie Brown Five generations of Bristol Bay commercial fishermen.

At first, Melanie worked alongside her great-grandfather Paul Chukan. Later, once she became a mother, Melanie started her daughter fishing at age 10, too. Her daughter, now 18, and son, 13, now commercial fish alongside Melanie and her parents. If you were to hang out at the airport in the Bristol Bay town of King Salmon at the start of fishing season, you’ll meet people flying in from locations around the state, ranging from tiny villages to Anchorage — coming “home” to work their family’s setnet operations. Fishing is hard work, but it also serves as a family reunion. For many people, specifically Alaska Natives, fishing Bristol Bay strengthens their connection to their culture, salmon and the land. Pebble threatens that connection, as Melanie and many others point out.

“That’s what really breaks my heart — he thought that the connection to my culture, to the Native foods of Bristol Bay, could be broken. Without salmon, Bristol Bay would become a desolate place. They don’t just nourish the people; they nourish the land. It’s a sad thought to think that could be disrupted,” Melanie told me. “The disappearance of salmon has happened all over the world. My hope is our collective consciousness can keep projects like Pebble from destroying places like Bristol Bay.”

Melanie Brown picking and pulling sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay. (Courtesy Photo / John Whittier)

Melanie Brown picking and pulling sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay. (Courtesy Photo / John Whittier)

The threat Pebble poses to Native culture, as well as to the $1.5 billion fishery that generates more than 14,500 jobs each year, is why Melanie has worked for years advocating against the mine. She’s crisscrossed the state and, with her friendly openness and firm convictions, inspired countless people to get involved in fighting for salmon. Besides commercial fishing, Melanie works as an organizer for SalmonState. The nonprofit fights to ensure Alaska’s salmon don’t share the same dismal fate of salmon elsewhere in the country and the world.

Melanie is a self-described foodie. Her favorite foods are simple, traditional and local: things like salmon, berries and herring eggs.

“I call them is ‘what it is’ foods. Native foods. I grew up an urban Native, but fortunately each summer my parents would return to my family’s roots. The thing that really makes me feel connected to my culture is food, and the process of preparing food. Amy Gulick (author of the book “The Salmon Way”) said, ‘Salmon bring people together.’ And it’s so true. Fishing, processing and eating—it brings people together.”

Melanie’s Baked Salmon Recipe

— Heat oven to 450 degrees

— On a cookie sheet lined with tin foil, place fresh or fully thawed salmon

— Season with sea salt and onion powder

Then, for every inch of thickness — measure the thickest part of the salmon — bake 10 minutes. If thicker or thinner, adjust accordingly. If your oven is fully pre-heated and your fillet is fully thawed, your salmon should turn out fully cooked, but not over-cooked.

Note: If it is not king salmon, consider adding a bit of fat and flavor by laying a piece of bacon on your fillet or some salami slices. Wild berry jam is a nice addition, too.

• 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.

More in News

The Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Encore docks in Juneau in October, 2022. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
Ships in Port for t​​he Week of Oct. 1

Here’s what to expect this week.

This image from House Television shows Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., the Speaker Pro Tempore, presiding as the House passes a 45-day funding bill on Saturday at the Capitol in Washington. The House vote was 335-91. The measure now goes to the Senate, which also is meeting Saturday. (House Television via AP)
On the brink of a federal shutdown, the House passes a 45-day funding plan and sends it to Senate

Peltola, still in Alaska after husband’s death, abstains from vote, but offers statement of support.

This is a photo taken at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center in July. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
Forest Service, Tlingit and Haida to co-steward Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area

Tribe dedicated to “protection of the historic and cultural resources in the area,” president says.

Retiring Deputy Chief David Campbell, left, and City and Borough of Juneau Manager Rorie Watt, right, smile for a photo Friday afternoon during a ceremony held at the Juneau Police Station. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)
Juneau’s deputy and interim police chief retires after 28 years

David Campbell honored for his service during a ceremony Friday afternoon.

Violinist/vocalist Chelsey Green, seen here with her Green Project ensemble in 2022, is scheduled to perform Oct. 4 and 5 during the Juneau Jazz and Classics Fall Music Festival. (Photo courtesy of Chelsey Green)
This fall’s Juneau Jazz and Classics offers the world on a string

Cellos and violins will be playing rock, folk, baroque, fusion and traditional at five-day festival.

(Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
Police investigate ‘random’ drive-by pellet gun attack downtown

A person in a white SUV reportedly shot at two women Wednesday night.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Derek Bos of Colorado smiles for a photo Thursday evening outside of City Hall. Bos is one of two finalists seeking the chief position at the Juneau Police Department. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)
Chief finalist says building trust in schools and faith-based communities a priority

He addresses past controversial arrests of two school district administrators in Colorado.

Most Read