Bristol Bay Subsistence Tradition

Mae Syvrud and Her Family's Salmon Smokehouse

Bristol Bay Smokehouse

Mae Syvrud and her family care for their salmon in a traditional smokehouse.

The tributaries of Bristol Bay lead to upstream salmon spawning habitat that the Conservancy and its local partners are working to protect.

Like many families in the Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska, Mae Syvrud and her family gather each year on a gravelly beach to harvest salmon. It is a tradition taught to her by her elders, and she, likewise, teaches her family’s younger generations in the same methods.

As salmon swim the waters of Nushagak Bay en route to spawning habitat in the Nushagak River basin, Mae and her family set out a subsistence fishing net along the beach. Bristol Bay is home to the world’s largest run of wild sockeye salmon – annual runs have averaged more than 30 million over the last 50 years – and the family harvests these and the other four species of salmon.

Caring for the Catch

On this same beach, Mae and her family collect the driftwood that will burn in their smokehouse. In a covered barrel, the fire burns exceptionally smoky yet not so hot – a delicate but necessary balance for preserving fish with a superior flavor.

A smoldering fire of old cottonwood is preferred, although Mae will on occasion stoke the fire with birch driftwood – its sweet and mild smoke permeates strips of salmon that hang in the smoky confines of the smokehouse for two or three days.

After smoking, strips continue to hang for perhaps another three weeks – “give or take a little, depending on the weather.”  By then, the thin strips of flesh have turned nearly translucent. “When they have that clear glass look, they’re done,” Mae says.    

A Full Pantry

Mae cares for salmon with the delicate manner as taught to her by her own mother. Nothing is wasted.

“I pretty much save everything except for the backbone itself and the guts,” Mae says.

Heads are salted. The tails of Chinook salmon are frozen. A particular cut from behind the head is kippered. Stomachs are kept. Eggs are saved, too – dried and then canned in jars and shared with elders. “They slice it and eat it like cheese,” Mae says.

Her family’s work fills their own pantry, but she helps to feed village elders and neighbors who might otherwise do without. In this way, the abundance of wild Bristol Bay salmon spills far and wide.


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