It was a rare sunny day in Sitka, and the town’s residents had turned out for the annual Sitka Seafood Festival. Screams and splashes resound through the harbor, where people were swimming and paddling in fish tote races. The aromas of freshly grilled wild salmon and marinated black cod tips wafted through the air, as kids ran and danced to the music, waving the salmon-themed flags they made at the craft booth.
Held every August, the Sitka Seafood Festival is a summer tradition.
“You know that feeling when it’s a glorious day like this, and you end up with some good friends, someone brings some fish they just caught, and you’re watching boats go by … One of the things we kept talking about was how do we build up different events so we can create that sense of community,” said Aurora Lang, describing the intent behind the festival. She’s the Program Director for the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust (ASFT) and one of the festival planners.
The festival is organized in partnership with the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. Both local organizations are dedicated to supporting local fishermen and ensuring sustainable fisheries, but they couldn’t put on a festival this grand alone. Each year, dozens of Sitkans volunteer to help out with the festival, whether they’re serving food, playing live music, or running one of the many booths and activities.
One volunteer, Jacquie Foss, emphasizes how meaningful an event must be to draw such a crowd on a sunny day in Sitka.
“Summer is always a dicey time because the producers are out catching the seafood,” she said. “The seafood festival is great because we have so much cool seafood and we spend so much time marketing it to people who live elsewhere. I just wish we could do more stuff like this.”
The festival’s emphasis on community is reflected in the sheer number of events held this year. There’s something for everyone. From May to October, the calendar boasts paint and sip events, a 4-H youth outdoor survival camp, a fish skin exhibit, a Wild Salmon Day Block Party, and more.
The block party is new this year and fell on Aug. 10, which Gov. Bill Walker officially declared Wild Salmon Day in 2016.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all Alaskans could have a neighborhood block party, so we could know that all of our Alaska neighbors are celebrating seafood at the same time?” Lang said of the initial idea for the block party.
While celebrating seafood is an obvious theme, ensuring the sustainability of local fisheries is also a major passion behind the festival. “It’s huge,” Lang exclaimed. The proceeds from festival events fund community supported fishery programs, conservation research, and other efforts to ensure the longevity of local fisheries.
Even the celebrity chef who will cook the festival’s formal banquet in October has sustainable seafood on the brain and on the plate. Lang said she can’t announce the name yet, but that the chef “does a lot in the name of sustainability, sourcing seafood direct from fishermen.”
For Renee Trafton, owner and chef at Beak Restaurant in Sitka, getting involved in the Seafood Festival was a no brainer.
“Absolutely I want to be part of this. I love seafood,” she said. “It’s our biggest industry.”
Trafton taught the festival’s filleting class at Sitka Kitch, and also hosted a night of seafood storytelling at Beak.
Trafton’s excitement about knowing how to fillet your own fish is infectious.
“I think that filleting is one of the most empowering things you can do. As a person, you take this wild, recently living animal and you turn it into something that you could eat for dinner,” she said.
Excitement could be found anywhere you turned. When it was time for the fish tote race, hundreds of laughing spectators rushed to the side of the harbor to watch brave volunteers paddle race across the harbor and back in bright blue fish totes. Josh Wynn and J.T. Ferris were cheered to their victory. When asked what seafood means to them, they grinned and answered in unison: “a delicious supper” and “good eats.”
At the end of a busy festival day, that’s really what it comes down to. The Sitka Seafood Festival gives Sitkans an occasion to come together to celebrate and eat a beloved, delicious food source for good cause: ensuring that the the ocean and the communities who depend on it thrive for years to come.
• Maia Mares is a freelance writer currently living in Sitka. She also works for the Sitka Conservation Society, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Tongass National Forest and developing sustainable communities in Southeast Alaska.