- By Lee Ann Cox
by Lee Ann Cox
It’s intense when you’re trying to cook breakfast and the pots and pans are sliding everywhere, agree Claire Laukitis ’12 and Peter Neaton ’11, laughing about their life at sea, fishing the remote waters along the chain of Aleutian Islands that arc off the southwest Alaskan peninsula. But when it’s calm, as it often is in the summer, the Laukitis family boat, the forty-two-foot Lucky Dove, is their favorite place to be. The beauty, Neaton says when VQ caught the couple on a brief onshore break from salmon season, is “extreme,” with towering volcanoes amidst an emerald green backdrop. They’ve had some nice days, though the temperature hasn’t topped fifty degrees.
If that sounds brisk, they don’t mind. It makes the job easier. Laukitis has quickly entwined her UVM business degree with the life she grew up in, when she and her sister joined their dad on the boat in these same Alaskan waters. Laukitis and Neaton, who is from a farm family in Minnesota (and a nutrition major who perhaps sensed a future in fish, researching Omega-3 fatty acids his senior year) have become entrepreneurs, borrowing from the CSA farming model to sell shares of their catch—wild salmon, halibut, and cod—at the end of their season. In April Laukitis launched the Morshovi Bay Fish Company website and the pair (who plan to marry next spring) began hitting food co-ops, restaurants, meetings of sustainable farmers to promote their idea.
But fish don’t wait for other business, and by May the couple was on the boat. They catch salmon in nets around the clock, monitoring them at regular intervals, bleeding the fish, and storing them in thirty-three-degree seawater tanks before daily delivery. To keep wild Alaskan salmon a sustainable resource, fishing is carefully managed—two days off, two days on. During downtimes they read and especially like to cook. Neaton knows his way around a Crock-Pot and has boundless ideas for preparing salmon. “It’s pretty much the highlight of our day,” says Laukitis, “to come up with something to eat. It’s our creative outlet.”
Ultimately, though, they love to fish. “Claire and I both agree that what we like about being on the boat is that everyday you’re just working hard,” Neaton says. “It’s mentally focused, but you’re doing something physical as well.”
For her part, Laukitis likely has the bubbliest personality of anyone who ever uttered the phrase, “It’s a bloody mess,” to describe her work. Halibut season, her favorite, immediately follows salmon. For that they fish in three-day trips, farther out the Aleutian chain, bait lines, gut the fish, and keep them on ice.
“It’s a lot more physically demanding,” Laukitis says, “you have to get these huge fish aboard and they’re flapping around and then you get them on a table and clean them. It’s a lot more interesting.”
If their enthusiasm wavers it’s over the seasonal transition from fishing to a life that feels less purposeful, even though Neaton helps his family on their farm and fishes three months in Alaskan winter, and Laukitis has a second entrepreneurial venture with her sister, an artist, designing and producing T-shirts and sweatshirts inspired by their nostalgia for home and life on the boat. Salmon Sisters clothing has been a hit, selling online through Etsy and in shops in Alaska.
But this fall they have the added task of hitting farmers markets and restaurants, telling their story. Laukitis believes that as people slowly learn that they can buy healthful, sustainable seafood from its source rather than down the supply chain, they can be successful.
“It’s neat to realize this fish has a purpose—it’s going to feed someone,” says Laukitis. “Customers get a healthy product and they know where the food is coming from. I’ve always been interested in that.” It’s a message that got honed in Burlington, even as the alumni live it half a world away. “Definitely I think UVM was a big part of our influence,” Neaton says. “It has a big environmental presence and culture of being connected to your food source.”
Morshovi Bay Fish Company: http://morshovifish.com
Salmon Sisters: http://aksalmonsisters.com