It all began with a rockfish.
An Alaskan rockfish, bright orange and spiny-finned. After a remote coastal childhood and nearly a decade of commercial fishing with her family in the Bering Sea, Emma Laukitis knew the image well. On a college study abroad art program in Italy, Laukitis learned how to screen print. Contemplating what design to make first, she thought of a rockfish. It reminded her of Alaska, of home.
Now, about three years later, 23-year-old Laukitis has taken her nautically inspired art to the next level, selling ocean-print apparel with her sister Claire, 24, through their company, Salmon Sisters. Using Claire's business education and Emma's graphics, the two have created a company that is more than just clothing: Ideally, it builds community, spreads awareness of sustainable fisheries, and cultivates pride in young fishermen and fisherwomen in Alaska and beyond.
Childhood on the water
On the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, a thin strip of bay away from the start of the Aleutian Islands, sits a quiet tundra homestead. Brown bears stroll by, volcanoes loom above, and two fair-haired girls play outside. Meet Claire and Emma, circa 1996, when a love for the ocean had already begun seeping into their souls.
Their parents fished commercially and the girls grew up in the coastal culture. During summers, they helped their mother around the homestead. "We did a lot of subsistence fishing, smoking fish, making jam and more," said Claire. "It was just my sister and me, and we were creative with imaginary games, playing outside all the time."
For Emma, this was the start of her ocean-inspired art. "Everything I knew, everything out there, our whole life was fishing," she said. "The things I drew were the things I caught every day, the things I saw. And that meant a lot of fish."
When the girls were 8 and 9, the Laukitis family moved to Homer for them to attend school, still returning to the homestead every summer. Five years later, Emma and Claire spent their first summer working full-time on their father's boat, the Lucky Dove, and they have fished commercially ever since.
An idea hatches
Even while attending New England colleges, the sisters never let Alaska leave their thoughts. Claire studied marketing at the University of Vermont with the plan of returning to Alaska and starting a business selling her own fish. Emma attended Williams College in Massachusetts, bringing Alaska subject matter to her English and art classes.
"I wanted to make art about what was meaningful to me, and what I knew," she said. "That was the ocean and those creatures we caught, and the lifestyle of fishing. I didn't ever realize that was unique."
Studying abroad in Florence, Emma made her first screen print, the rockfish, and printed a few copies for family and friends. Upon returning to the U.S., she printed a batch of 40 rockfish sweatshirts and began to sell them at college, first to her crew team, and then to a growing body of interested students.
Meanwhile, Claire was about to graduate. Brainstorming for post-collegiate life, the sisters dreamed up the idea of Salmon Sisters, an ocean-inspired Alaskan apparel business that would complement fishing, which they wanted to continue doing.
"When you choose a commercial fishing lifestyle, you have lots of time off in the winters, even with boat projects," Claire said. "Salmon Sisters fits in nicely." In spring of 2012, she drafted a business plan, and after a summer of fishing, they made a small printing of four designs to sell online, on etsy.com.
Since then, Salmon Sisters has grown to have its own Internet store and multiple retail locations, with orders shipped around Alaska and beyond. Emma designs the artwork, Claire manages the business aspect, and they work together to fill the gaps, operating out of a small rental storage unit in Homer.
Inspired by the ocean
At the essence of the company is a deep love and respect for the ocean and fishing. Salmon features prominently, of course. "We fish for salmon all summer long, so we see a lot of salmon," Emma said. "Salmon are, to me, the most beautiful fish. They've given me, my family and the whole state a way to make a living."
She brings her art materials on the boat each summer and does most designs by hand. "There's so much inspiration to be gathered from the ocean, the way we live and the people who work on the ocean," she said. "It's never-ending."
Not only does the ocean inspire the Salmon Sisters' art, it's also the focus of their whole enterprise.
"Salmon Sisters has been the perfect offshoot of what we hold near and dear as commercial fishermen," Claire said. "All fishermen are stewards of this incredible resource, and we want to share that and promote it for future generations."
The ocean has inspired collaborations as well: Salmon Sisters has partnered with Alaska Marine Conservation Council, Great Land Trust and The Salmon Project, creating designs where a portion of sales goes to support local conservation projects.
For instance, they worked with The Salmon Project to develop a "lifeblood" T-shirt and a "salmon love" hoodie, both concepts inspired by surveys and focus groups The Salmon Project has conducted to explore Alaskans' deep, personal relationship with the fish.
" 'Salmon love' speaks to the heart of Alaskans," said Erin Harrington, executive director of The Salmon Project. "The relationship that they have with this resource -- it's not just food, and not just something recreational, but really, it's a love story."
For Harrington, the collaboration was a way for a nonprofit and a private business to support each other and raise awareness of a common focus.
"It also represents the bigger belief that we have about how salmon can connect us all, and does connect us all, and what we can discover when we work together," Harrington said.
Netting a nautical community
Salmon Sisters may have started with a simple fish sweatshirt, but the business has spawned a celebration of fishing that brings together people who fish, enjoy fish, or just value Alaska's rich natural resources.
"It doesn't matter where you live -- from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor -- we're all connected," Claire said. "We're so remote and spread out, but hopefully our products will help people remember our connection."
In a field traditionally dominated by men, Emma and Claire draw attention to females who fish, and they have been inspired by the other strong women who run their own boats and work on deck. "There are awesome, adventurous, independent women who inspire us daily," Claire said.
Salmon Sisters' apparel is also a rallying cry directed at young fishermen at a time when Alaska fisheries are concerned about the "graying of the fleet." According to a 2014 report by Alaska's Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, the average age of permit holders is 49.7, an increase of nearly 10 years since the 1980s. Between 1980 and 2013, the number of Alaska residents under age 40 holding fishing permits declined -- falling from 38.5 percent of the total number of permits to 17.3 percent.
Rachel Donkersloot works for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and is also a principal investigator of a three-year "Graying of the Fleet" research project, funded by the North Pacific Research Board and Alaska Sea Grant. She studies social, cultural, economic and geographic factors that are barriers to young people who might pursue a career in fishing.
"What is really valuable about the kind of the work that the Salmon Sisters are doing is that it fosters a pride in place and work," Donkersloot said. "It captures a sense of identity and culture around fishing that is lost without the younger generation to carry it forward."
From ocean to ocean
On any given day, Salmon Sisters mails out 15-30 orders. They track their deliveries on a map and have watched the points speckle the state and reach as far away as the Netherlands and Australia.
Ultimately, the sisters will continue to fish in summer and develop the business in winter.
"I love using Salmon Sisters as a way to connect to other groups and communities," Emma said.
Because, at the heart of it, they are fisherwomen, proud and passionate. "It's some of the hardest work, but also the most rewarding," Claire said. "You're in nature and completely at the mercy of Mother Nature. It's out of your control."
For the sisters, the business is part of a complete cycle that centers on wild Alaska fishing. Started with crew-share money, it is inspired by the ocean and nurtured by fishermen and other Alaskans. The Salmon Sisters hope that each piece of apparel raises awareness and helps build a community that, in turn, loves and sustains Alaska's oceans.
Elissa Brown is an Anchorage freelance writer.