Commercial fishing and seafood processing employ more people in Whatcom County than Western Washington University, more than breweries and more than bike shops. Bellingham is on the water, with a waterfront soon to be redeveloped. But Bellingham’s myriad events, for the most part, ignore the waterfront and the county’s maritime heritage.
Deborah Granger is trying to change that. Granger is the lead planner for a seafood and waterfront festival called the SeaFeast, which will be held in Bellingham next fall. The event won $75,000 from the City of Bellingham’s lodging tax fund after the city made a call for pitches for a new off-season “signature event”—an event on a similar scale to Ski to Sea to bring visitors to Bellingham’s ample new hotel rooms.
The inaugural event, scheduled for Friday, Sept. 30 and Saturday, Oct. 1, (and possibly spilling into Sunday) 2016, will include a salmon barbecue cook-off with professional and nonprofessional teams, oyster shucking and slurping, relay races where participants wear heavy neoprene survival suits, knot-tying and net-mending demonstrations and competitions, beer and spirit pairings with shellfish, nautical and marine art, information booths, boat and dock tours, and music.
Granger started planning the event months ago, but planning will intensify in mid- to late-September when many involved with the SeaFeast finish sockeye fishing and the commercial season ends.
Granger has worked in the seafood industry for 40 years, doing everything from working in Alaskan salmon canneries, to serving on boards for the Working Waterfront Coalition of Whatcom County and the Whatcom Commercial Fishermen’s Association. Currently, she’s a member of Lummi Island Wild, a sustainable fishing cooperative.
Granger isn’t the only person who thought Bellingham’s maritime heritage needed a celebration.
Tara Sundin, a member of the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee, said the committee narrowed the initial 20 proposals down to four before unanimously voting for the SeaFeast. The number of volunteers and donors who came forward to support the festival is one reason the committee chose the event, she said. Supporters range from seafood processing businesses to the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association—a salmon habitat advocacy group.
“It was an impressive group who came forward,” Sundin said.
Commercial fishing and seafood processing at Squalicum and Blaine marinas generated 1,781 direct jobs in 2013, and those employed in the industry earned $94.5 million, according to a study commissioned by the Port of Bellingham and done by Martin Associates of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
By comparison, Western Washington University employed 1,541, as of January 2015, Western communications director Paul Cocke said.
“We really don’t celebrate that part of our community very much,” Sundin said.
The $75,000 in seed money for the event came from lodging tax paid by hotel and motel visitors within the City of Bellingham. The City sought an event to help establish Bellingham as a destination, give people a reason to visit during the tourism off-season and fill up some of Bellingham’s 650 hotel rooms that either opened recently or will open soon. The event is eligible for an additional $50,000 for both the 2017 and 2018 festivals.
“Our intent and commitment is to make this successful so that it is sustainable and lives on,” Granger said. “We have every hope and desire of securing that funding.”
Oliver Lazenby, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or firstname.lastname@example.org.