HOMER — On a recent afternoon, Emma Privat and Claire Neaton — commercial fishermen, Alaska entrepreneurs and wild seafood influencers known as the Salmon Sisters — were down in Homer Harbor, loading an aluminum bowpicker called the Acadian.
This was only for a day trip, to Privat’s cabin in Peterson Bay for a family dinner. Privat and Neaton have been packing up boats since they were old enough to walk, but, lately, everything’s a touch harder.
For one thing, Privat is eight months pregnant. Bending down to schlep boxes isn’t easy, though she schlepped a couple anyway. Neaton breezed down the ramp a little later than she said she’d be, with her 1-year-old daughter Ingrid on her back. Neaton also balanced a basket containing, among other things, a vase full of peonies and a candied orange upside-down cake. Falcon, a pint-sized, fox-faced dog, hopped aboard. Situated, they set off into the bay.
Last month, the sisters — technically Privat and a basket of Dungeness crab — appeared on the cover of Bon Appétit magazine, which featured recipes from their new cookbook, “The Salmon Sisters: Harvest and Heritage.” They’ve been mentioned or profiled in dozens of national publications — including The New York Times and magazines Outside and Vogue. But the Bon Appétit cover is the highest-profile placement for both them and Alaska cuisine, which tends to be ignored by the Outside food world. It’s a sign of their growing influence, though they tend to downplay it.
“Salmon Sisters itself is just a way that people can connect to salmon in our state and Alaska in general, its wild abundance,” Neaton said. “Salmon Sisters can be a tiny part of that, it just sticks in your mind a bit.”
The sisters are accustomed to hard work — they grew up commercial fishing and living on an off-grid homestead in the Aleutians — but as they are moving into motherhood, managing a growing business and carrying the complicated story of Alaska’s environment, commercial fishing industry and food culture to a wider world, work has never been trickier. The two of them, now in their early 30s, are thinking hard about the future of their business and about balancing it with time spent on the ocean, a source of solace and inspiration.
“It’s kind of a big state of transition for us as a collective, with kids and kids on the way. It’s definitely put a lot of things in perspective. Time is really precious,” Privat said. “It’s like how do you navigate this thing that’s been your identity for so long, and like really it fills your cup and lets you just disappear and be in a different world. How do you do this and do that?”
After a short ride, Privat’s husband, Jacob, tucked the Acadian into a tiny cove at the foot of a set of wooden stairs leading into the pushki. Up went the sisters, their mother Shelly Laukitis, grandmother Elaine Etzler, Ingrid, Falcon, Jacob and various bags and boxes containing the makings for dinner.
The cabin is the site of a former kayaking lodge. It has a wide, weathered deck, a sauna and a collection of outbuildings. Privat soon laid out a plate of oysters under the covered porch and began shucking them. Everybody took turns tossing them back while keeping Ingrid, who was toddling in a rain suit, from getting too close to the edges of the deck. Privat popped open canned beets and rhubarb chutney and put out smoked salmon strips.
Sometimes, the lives of people pictured in magazines and on social media aren’t anything like they appear. In person, though, Privat and Neaton are pretty much as they come across everywhere, most at ease in the coastal world of Kachemak Bay. Being capable matters most in that world. So does staying dry. There is no time for looking in a mirror. Years of weather have worked on the skin of the backs of their hands. Years of use have rubbed their Xtratuf heels down.
Buck and Shelly Laukitis, the sisters’ parents, moved to an isolated mainland property across from Unimak Island, a 20-minute boat ride from False Pass, when Claire was an infant and Emma wasn’t yet born. Buck, who was originally from Illinois, had fished a summer there, loved it and then they found a homestead for sale. They owned the place for 25 years, though they started spending winters in Homer so the girls could go to school. The property had a water wheel for generating electricity, a chicken house and a greenhouse. They picked berries, fished and harvested shellfish.
“I think it taught us really important lessons of balance and respecting the resources we really depended on for a good life there,” Privat said.
The Salmon Sisters started with halibut. The pair long-lined from the time they were little girls, earning hours and crewshare that allowed them to buy quota. Halibut put them through college — Neaton studied business and Privat has a master’s in design. Their quota provided the capital that allowed them to finance their business, which started 12 years ago with hoodie sales on Etsy between fishing seasons. About eight years ago, they got a two-sentence email out of the blue from Xtratuf, asking them about putting their design on boots. The partnership isn’t a huge revenue stream, but it has been huge for building their brand.
“It still gets us every time to see women wearing them,” Neaton said. “We are so tickled and amazed that it resonates with people and they are willing to wear them.”
Salmon Sisters’ business turns on branding and product curation. Privat makes designs and they partner with companies that produce products in a practical, sturdy vein that works for commercial fishing and rural life — this would include, aside from Xtratufs, things like beanies by the company Skida, dry bags sewn by the Homer company NOMAR, or a wearable “treasure bucket” for harvesting by Sagebrush Dry, a company in Kake. They also ship salmon from a processor out of Washington, custom packaging it and sending it directly to consumers with materials about how to prepare it. They’re more focused on food than ever.
“Frozen food bloomed during the pandemic. We saw that our customer base was very interested in tinned fish and smoked salmon they were able to gift,” Neaton said. “A lot of our wild fish customers are connected to Alaska and aren’t able to get fish any more.”
They fill e-commerce orders from an old fish processing plant on Homer Spit and operate two retail stores and a coffee shop. They employ five to 15 staff members, depending on the season. They have almost 100,000 Instagram followers. And they’re still fishing. Neaton spent the last few summers on a tender in Prince William Sound. Privat gillnetted Copper River and the Sound. They both fished halibut in the Aleutians.
“It’s a constant juggle of what is the priority,” Neaton said. “What is paramount is safety, our family on the water comes first. Boat is safe, crew is safe, baby is safe, then we get to delve into our small business.”
The halibut in their Aleutian home fishery are smaller and there are fewer than there used to be, Neaton said. Asked if when Ingrid grew up, she would be eating king salmon — a species that has been struggling for over a decade from California to Western Alaska — she said, “not in the same way.”
Of course, they want fish to be available for generations to come, she said, but that depends on healthy habitat and sustainable management. There’s also the challenge of a changing ocean.
“We want it to be there for our kids but it’s such a complex formula,” she said.
At the cabin, Privat set about making a seafood boil — a recipe from their new cookbook, influenced by her husband Jacob’s roots in Louisiana. She hauled a Dutch oven outside, set it on a gas burner and dropped in corn, potatoes from their garden, clams, sausage, prawns from Neaton and her husband Peter’s shrimp pot. It’s a dish that connects people, she said.
“Everyone gets in there and eats with their hands,” she said.
Their first cookbook, “The Salmon Sisters: Feasting, Fishing, and Living in Alaska,” came out in 2020. Its recipes were based on family meals that could be cooked at a cabin or on a boat. Their newest cookbook takes traditional Alaska fare — fish pie, rhubarb chutney, salmon stock, and doughnuts — and adds innovative dimensions. Stock is made as pho broth, for example, and traditional Aleutian-style doughnuts are filled with rhubarb cream. Homer chef Brian Grobleski helped them develop and style the recipes. Dawn Heumann, a California food photographer, shot the images.
“We wrote it at the tail-end of the pandemic — people were really trying to figure out how to live,” Privat said. “Alaskans do have a more in-tune way of living seasonally. We were really thinking about that when we wrote this.”
As they build their national presence, they also serve an audience that’s split in its interests and understanding of salmon. For Alaskans, they sell gear that appeals to active women and celebrates a familiar place and familiar food. For Outsiders, like the many tourists who walk into their Homer stores, they see themselves as educators, explaining the difference between farmed and wild fish, the preciousness of salmon and the ethics of conservation.
“I can’t imagine what commercial fishing will look like in 20 years,” Neaton said. “But our families will be a driving force within Alaska’s industry, we’re here to continue to learn and be better stewards. … As fishermen we’re doing our best to stay informed and understand our impact. "
Being prominent faces of commercial salmon fishing comes with complications. Salmon is a wild food tangled in politics. It’s steadily more imperiled by habitat threats and climate change and deeply tied to the way Alaskans see themselves. Commercial fishing also sits at the center of many fraught themes in the state’s history: self-reliance, conflicts with the government, conservation, overharvest, colonization and subsistence rights.
Last year they unwittingly came up against some of those deep fault lines. The pair partnered with a Montana company, Youer, to add a blueberry pattern to a fleece tunic dress with a hood and a kangaroo pocket. Many outdoor companies — from Title Nine to Patagonia to Cabela’s — make a version of the dress design. Youer has been making its design for more than a decade. To advertise it, they posted a picture of a non-Native woman picking blueberries in the dress.
The online reaction to the image from the Alaska Native part of their customer base was swift and angry. To some in that audience, the dress clearly looked like a kuspuk, qaspeq or atikłuk. Posters thought the sisters sewed the dress and were taking credit for its design — an idea that opened up a well of outrage, coming after centuries of cultural appropriation of Native art.
Privat and Neaton initially took down critical posts on social media. Later, they apologized for shutting down discussion and not seeing the way the dress referenced a common Alaska Native design. The conversation that happened on their site was difficult to navigate, but also a crucial lesson, they said.
“Our apology was directed at those who didn’t feel like they were acknowledged or respected,” Privat said. “We definitely missed something really important and our community showed us our misstep.”
They also added language to the dress description to note that it was made in the style of a traditional garment and donated profits from the dress to a charity that brought salmon to communities on the Yukon River.
“Our focus is to listen and learn from Alaska Native women,” Neaton said.
Their new cookbook — which takes a broad, ambitious approach to explaining Alaska’s food culture — may reflect some of that learning. It includes a land acknowledgment, takes great care to point out the powerful influence of subsistence, includes voices from across the state and charts Alaska’s seasonal relationship to wild food.
“We were really excited to focus on community stories too, to share food traditions, hoping those voices could tell a bigger story about what Alaska is,” Neaton said.
At the cabin, it was time to gather at the table. A lasagna pan held steaming clams and prawns, corn and purple potatoes. Nasturtiums, the last of the season, dotted a salad of local greens. The dill bread had been baked that day at Two Sisters Bakery. The bay stretched out behind them as they filled their bowls. Soon Ingrid was outside again, playing peek-a-boo through the window, drawing her grandmother from the table. It was the kind of feast Alaskans know, one that happens at the end of a summer, simple and lavish at the same time.
It’s their neighbors, the local audience that understands the work and rewards that come with living in Alaska, who Neaton and Privat say they care most about.
“We just really want to make Alaskans proud,” Privat said.