By Hannah Heimbuch
Watching two adults hoist a massive pot of hot cod chowder onto the counter, I wondered if enough people would forgo the fall sunshine to make a dent in it. It steamed there on the counter, flanked by baskets brimming with soft slices of fresh bread, seeming to whisper the secret of festival planners through the ages: If you feed them, they will come.
And they did. It was the first event for the united Homer Halibut Festival and Wooden Boat Festival, and on the inaugural night we joined festivity forces and welcomed our community to the Alaska Islands & Ocean Visitor Center for a movie and speaker evening featuring the almighty halibut and the ships that pursue them. Whether drawn by the prospect of talking fish, or by the savory food magic of Two Sisters Bakery, one by one the room filled with more than 70 seafood lovers and boaters, scientists, and fishermen.
International Pacific Halibut Commission took the floor to share some of the history and science behind the Commission’s work and its signature species. We ended the evening with a documentary on the North Pacific’s historic wooden halibut schooners, some still fishing after more than a century harvesting halibut. I carried an empty chowder pot back to the truck. Mission accomplished.
By the time the sun came up again, a new team had assembled for our second event, the Halibut Fest Fish Fry, held this year at the Wooden Boat Festival grounds on the Homer Spit. But before we could fry, we had to prep.
Time to engage Homer’s steadfast ecosystem of community helpers. Potato salad for 300 people? Easy. Portioning 100 pounds of halibut donated by local fishermen? No problem; Homer volunteers show up with their own fillet knives. Coal Point opened the doors to its kitchen, and our generous sponsors helped us purchase the necessary ingredients. We even discovered that halibut scientists are excellent at both ecological study and making vast amounts of coleslaw. Between our rotating prep cooks, dishwashers, food servers, fish fryers, and clean up crew—plus the generous fishermen of the North Pacific Fisheries Association and the processors that donated time and protein—the community truly showed up for the Halibut Festival.
With full bellies and a fall sunburn, we left the fish fry and headed for Alice’s. Before starting a raucous evening with the salty tunes of Rogues and Wenches, we auctioned off a suite of buoys decorated by artists from around Alaska; yet another host of generous supporters that contributed to the success of this year’s events.
Homer Halibut Festival is a celebration of this fish we love and the incredible marine ecosystem that supports them. Much as it takes a village to raise a child—or a festival for that matter—the same is certainly true for the fish we rely on and the communities we’ve built around them. Every halibut caught in the North Pacific, every business that depends upon halibut, and all the people fed by halibut, are the positive results of a complex ecosystem of species and dynamics working together.
Whether we’re talking about halibut bycatch, ocean acidification, ecosystem-based fisheries management, clean water, healthy fishing communities, or any number of other issues vital to sustaining our fisheries and fishing way of life, all roads lead back to one essential thing: a healthy ecosystem with many working parts that are valued and considered vital to the whole.
We woke Sunday to a strong southeasterly blow, but the last hours of the festival weren’t to be missed. The Kachemak Bay Running Club hosted the 2nd Annual Halibut Hustle 5K run, a loop around the harbor that had us running into a feisty head wind on the home stretch. This made a final visit to the Wooden Boat Festival grounds all the sweeter, gripping cups of coffee and standing around the fire rumbling in the large outdoor stove near the beach, the Rogues and Wenches leading us in some sea shanties to close the celebration, and bid farewell to summer. See you next year Homer, for a bigger, badder Halibut Festival.
Hannah Heimbuch is AMCC’s Homer-based Community Fisheries Organizer. She can be reached at email@example.com.