Salmonfest’s environmental message shines through during music festival

A band plays music outside to a full audience in front of a tiedye backdrop.
Anything That’s Rock and Roll plays Tom Petty tribute songs to a full audience on the Ocean Stage at Salmonfest 2023 on Aug. 5 in Ninilchik. (Valerie Lake/Alaska Public Media)

Ninilchik’s annual Salmonfest transformed the small Kenai Peninsula town into a packed music hub this weekend, with big-name artists from around the country. Behind the stages, however, is the festival’s enduring message about Alaska salmon, and omnipresent anti-Pebble Mine activism.

A musician tips his hat to the audience on stage at a concert.
Old Crow Medicine Show performs on the River Stage. (Valerie Lake/Alaska Public Media)

Thousands of people attended Salmonfest this weekend to see performances like Old Crow Medicine Show, Sierra Ferrel and Sam Nelson of the pop rock outfit X Ambassadors.

But at the opposite corner of the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds in Ninilchik is an area known as the “causeway.” Here, dozens of fishing and environmental-related nonprofits line the pathway, from the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council, to the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association and Juneau-based SalmonState. U.S. Congresswoman Mary Peltola, who built her platform on a pro-fish position, has a booth here too.

Founded in 2011, the music festival has always been a venue for salmon activism. Thomas Tilden was at Salmonfest with United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a 15-tribe consortium that advocates for clean water and against Pebble Mine.

“I believe we have a really sound claim as to why they shouldn’t open the Pebble Mine in the spawning grounds of not only the Nushagak River, but also the Kvichak River,” he said.

Shelley Cotton talks to visitors at the United Tribes of Bristol Bay booth. (Riley Board/KDLL)

The booth for Tilden’s organization was decked out in pennants with the widespread No Pebble Mine symbol, a red circle with a line through it.

It’s a complicated time for Pebble Mine. In January, the EPA exercised a little-used veto power to halt progress on the mine. But just two weeks ago, Alaska’s attorney general appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. Tilden said this year’s Salmonfest has been an important venue to get that information out.

“This Salmonfest, you can’t thank all the people that have been involved in trying to save this product, and this Salmonfest has been great,” he said. “But the fight is not over. I think it’s really important that people realize it’s not over.”

Across from Tilden’s booth, the Fisher Poets took the stage Saturday afternoon. The Fisher Poets are a national organization of poets connected to the fishing industry, and Kenai Peninsula-based members have long been a fixture at Salmonfest.

They have a similar message about Alaska salmon: they talk about the environmental effects of mining, the economic difficulties of the commercial fishing industry, and the emotional relationship between fishers and salmon.

Cohoe commercial fisher and poet Meezie Hermansen reads a piece called “These Hands.”

“These hands are soaked in the blood of almost 50 years of salmon. Run after run, season after season, they’ve cradled the dying flesh, removed mesh after mesh after mesh,” she read. “It is a weird dichotomy, taking the life of something you say you love, not to ease pain, but for your own gain.”

An Indigenous Elder speaks into a mic on stage.
Salmonfest attendees heard from Alaska Native elders and land stewards about the role of salmon in the state. (Valerie Lake/Alaska Public Media)

But that message isn’t just relegated to the smaller stages. In between each big-name performance in the amphitheater is a talk from the Salmonfest Speaker Series, a curated lineup of fisherman, tribal advocates and environmentalists, all talking about threats to Alaska’s most famous resource.

Quentin Simeon is the operations director with Cook Inletkeeper, which organizes the speaker series.

“We were able to coordinate a large group of Indigenous speakers, from particularly the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and Bristol Bay region, to talk about the opposition against Pebble Mine and Donlin Mine,” Simeon said.

People dance front row at a concert.
Crowds dance to Free Creatures on the Headwaters stage at Salmonfest. (Valerie Lake/Alaska Public Media)

He was backstage at the main amphitheater, preparing speakers to go on.

“The messages in between the performances have always existed in Salmonfest,” he said. “And we have adopted it in the past few years as our mission to make sure this aspect is maintained at Salmonfest. But I think that the message, when it first initiated, was to oppose Pebble Mine, was about the salmon.”

Fisher Poet Clark Whitney performs his song “Every Summer.” (Riley Board/KDLL)

Simeon’s favorite speech was the one from his eldest daughter, who he said is normally shy, but came alive during a presentation from his whole family about their experiences at fish camp.

Tilden was also a part of the speaker series, and he said its integration into the music festival atmosphere is what makes Salmonfest such a successful activism event.

“One good thing about music is that music brings people together,” he said. “And there was a lot of people there, and I could tell by the audience that they did hear us, they heard our message, they heard our thanks.”

And at some points, the music and the message merged. During the Fisher Poets event, Clark Whitney performed his song “Every Summer,” a tribute to salmon and their preservation.

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