Jessica Normandeau bought a boat. And not just any boat – a 32-foot Bristol Bay gillnetter, designed for salmon fishing. After graduating from Harwood Union High School in 2010 and getting a degree in creative writing and fine art from St. Lawrence University, Normandeau was looking for a break from academia. She grew up in Waitsfield, loves to ski and wanted to find a job that allowed her to work in summer and ski all winter. She found herself out west to ski and spent her summers as a deckhand on a salmon fishing boat in Bristol Bay, Alaska. She didn’t fish growing up and picked it up after college. Bristol Bay is home of the largest commercial wild salmon fishery in the world, known for its sockeye salmon. Normandeau said it’s one of the most sustainably sourced fish in the world.
“Bristol Bay is a sustainably managed fishery because of how regulated it is,” she said.“We are only allowed to fish a certain net length on a boat that does not exceed 32 feet. Our hours and days we fish are very limited and the fishery is monitored by a team of biologists who ensure enough fish have gone upstream to spawn before we can put our nets in the water. This ensures a healthy return for years to come. Also ,we have virtually no bycatch,” which is when fishermen catch unwanted fish.
Normandeau said fishing seemed like “a good way to live seasonally. I thought I’d do it for a few years but it turned into a career.” Now that she’s the captain of her own boat, she plans to hire three crew members. “I had to claw my way in, as a woman,” she said. She said only about 1% of fishing boats in the area are run by women, though “Every single year you see more and more women. It’s really cool.”
When not fishing, Normandeau spends her winters skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She also enjoys snowmobiling and mountain biking. She called Jackson Hole an “inspiring place to live,” and said “the mountains are a lot bigger, it’s more serious, there’s a lot more snow,” though, “I miss Vermont.”
After seven years as a deckhand on fishing boats and as a ski bum in the winters, Normandeau said, “I’m excited to make my own decisions.” She said captaining a commercial fishing boat is 90% being a mechanic, and 10% deciding where and when to fish. “I’m becoming a diesel mechanic,” she laughed. “It’s a huge learning experience. I’ve been learning so much about the business side of things.”