Organizers ponder Port Alberni Salmon Festival's future

Sportsfishers return to Clutesi Haven Marina on Tuesday morning. Preparations are underway for the 41st Port Alberni Salmon Festival. Escalating costs have organizers pondering whether to cancel the festival next year or reach out to corporate sponsors to keep it alive.   - WAWMEESH G. HAMILTON/Alberni Valley News
Sportsfishers return to Clutesi Haven Marina on Tuesday morning. Preparations are underway for the 41st Port Alberni Salmon Festival. Escalating costs have organizers pondering whether to cancel the festival next year or reach out to corporate sponsors to keep it alive.
— image credit: WAWMEESH G. HAMILTON/Alberni Valley News

Clutesi Haven Marina was relatively quiet on Tuesday morning.

Three boats slunk in and out of the launch and some passersby watched as a seal frolicked by a green marker just outside the launch.

But things will change on Friday as the 41st Annual Port Alberni Salmon Festival kicks off. For four days the marina will swarm with crowds, entertainment, volunteers and vendors.

The weekend could be bittersweet: escalating costs are forcing salmon festival organizers to evaluate whether this will be the final salmon festival.

“We’ll see if there is a No. 42 after we crunch the numbers from this one,” festival organizer Dan Washington said. “The board said let’s go for it this year so we’ll see where it goes.”

According to Washington, changes to the marina grounds and liability requirements significantly raised the event’s costs. “The festival is 41 years old and you could say it’s going through a mid-life crisis,” he said.

Earlier this year, the marina office building was demolished for safety reasons. The salmon festival society used the building’s meeting room and washrooms, and the side wall  served as support for an awning that covered the seating area for the salmon barbecue.

Subsequently, organizers have had to shell out for a portable trailer for an office, porta-potties with hand washing stations as well as large tents that will now serve as the seating area.

“There will still be a sit-down area so people can stay out of rain — or sun, I hope — but we’ve had to redesign it because of the building,” Washington said.

River Road is considered a provincial highway, therefore a professional flagging firm is now used. And professional security personnel are required. Professional flag services cost the society between $6,000 and $7,000 for the weekend, Washington said.

“Back in the day we used to be able to ask a ball team to do the flagging and security for us,” Washington said. “But we have to bite the bullet and hire professionals now.”

Van NesDerby participant numbers also impact the society’s bottom line. Washington says an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people will participate in the derby this year, which is up from 2,600 in 2011.“Less crowd means less money left over to donate to things like salmon enhancement, bursaries and scholarships,” Washington said.

The society will see what’s left after the dust has cleared and determine what the options are afterward.

The worst-case scenario would see the festival cease completely. But a second option would see the society try to negotiate partnerships with the Alberni Valley’s corporate community to keep the family event alive.

The idea would work by having a company sponsor the festival itself and other companies sponsor the vendors and possibly the entertainment. The concept is already in practice with Quality Foods sponsoring the fireworks display on Friday night to kick off the event.

The event has served as a major fundraiser for Kiwanis, Lions, the AV Rescue Squad and other service groups. Those agencies help a lot of people and other groups in turn, so the trickle-down in the event of a cessation would be a corrosive spiral.

“If it doesn’t continue then the Valley will change without it. “We’ll have to look at some form of commercialization if we want to continue,” Washington said.

Meanwhile, preparations for the salmon festival were cranking up on Monday. Volunteers began to erect the skeletons of vendor booths and unload tables from a trailer. The entertainment will be as local as possible to give home grown entertainers exposure and a few dollars as well.

The vendors will largely be the same, save for one. The Beta Sigma Phi will not be operating a pie booth this year. Instead, the sorority will run the fishermen’s breakfast Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings.

“They were down to about seven volunteers and couldn’t do it this year,” Washington said. “VIHA requirements don’t allow them to bake their pies at home anymore.”

Fishing-wise, things are looking pretty good, said area Department of Fisheries and Oceans Fisheries manager Bill Shaw. The chinook run size is 34,000 pieces with a 10,000 surplus, Shaw said.The bag limit is two per day with a possession limit of four fish.

Back at the marina on Monday, the fish cutting table was doing a brisk business.

Former Port Alberni resident Bill Hyde was cleaning a 24-pound spring while his fishing buddy Bob Van Nes from Black Creek clean caught a 28-pound spring. Both were caught near the Coulson’s facility in the canal.

Salmon Fest received an early shot in the arm as no commercial or aboriginal fisheries were scheduled to be held before the derby.

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