Salmonfest 2023: a Sold Out Success

The band Old Crow Medicine Show performed in front of a crowd exceeding 8,000 people during Salmonfest 2023 at the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds in Ninilchik, Alaska. Photo: Margaret Bauman.

Ask festivalgoers who show up by the thousands every year what attracts them to Salmonfest at Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds, and they’ll say it’s the music. But the undercurrent is the promotion and conservation of healthy salmon habitat.

“You can’t build an event around a cause,” festival producer Jim Stearns told Fishermen’s News. “People don’t (care) about the cause. It has to be all about the music first, but even opponents (of the cause) come because it is so cool, and then you get your message out.”

That message — about the importance of sustainable salmon habitat in the ocean and Alaska’s rivers and streams — is provided each year at Salmonfest by a number of nonprofit conservation and other activist entities, plus speakers, including Native Alaskans, on four stages, including a huge amphitheater.

It’s spread during breaks from 60 bands performing throughout the three days of the festival.

During the 2023 event, there were more participating nonprofits than ever, Stearns said, as well as a lot of activism, including some with great concerns about the potential adverse impact of proposed large mines on fish habitat.

At the booth hosted annually by United Tribes of Bristol Bay, community engagement director Judy Jo Matson expressed her criticism of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s decision to pursue legal action from the U.S. Supreme Court, after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declined to approve a Clean Water Act permit needed for development of a copper, gold and molybdenum mine on state land abutting the headwaters of Bristol Bay.

“It’s very disrespectful to residents of our region, for all the work we have done to protect the salmon, the water and our land,” she said.

The “bill of complaint” filed by the state’s Department of Law on July 26 contends that the EPA’s decision violates the state’s right to develop its natural resources for the maximum benefit of its residents.

Other nonprofits with booths at the festival also challenged proposed mining ventures which they contend have great potential to damage the health of salmon habitat. On other sections of the fairgrounds, vendors sold a wide variety of foods and beverages, plus salmon print clothing, salmon skin jewelry and other artistic works.

The festival itself donates thousands of dollars every year to organizations on the frontlines of protecting the health of Alaska’s wild salmon. Since 2015, the festival has donated over $100,000 to salmon and environmental conservation organizations, including the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society and Cook Inletkeeper, two Homer, Alaska-based nonprofits focused on educating the public and protecting the state’s fish habitat.

Other beneficiaries are Alaskans Know Climate Change, Musicians United to Protect Bristol Bay, United Tribes of Bristol Bay and Stand for Salmon. The list also includes five public radio stations, the Homer Library, and school basketball teams in Ninilchik, where the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds is located.