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Bristol Bay Fish Expo kicks off the fishing season

Sage Smiley/KDLG

The annual Bristol Bay Fish Expo in Naknek continued for the third year in a row. And from brailer makers and processors to local history projects, it is fast becoming a must for people in the fishing industry. 

A group of kids walked between tables of exhibitors in the Bristol Bay Borough school gym. They were walking alongside a bin that held a large king salmon caught in Egegik.

It was the first fish ceremony, and the kids presented the king to Mary Lou Aspelund and Allen Aspelund Sr., marking the beginning of the 2019 Bristol Bay Fish Expo.

“We’ve had exhibitors from all across Alaska, all across the Lower 48, and even from out of the country,” said Sharon Thompson, one the event’s organizers and the president of Little Angels Childcare Academy.

The Bristol Bay Fish expo started out as a fundraiser for the center, which cares for kids ages 19 months to eight years. This year, they raised approximated $35,000, and Thompson said the revenue it has generated has kept Little Angels afloat.

“I will say that just from booth sales, it has been over $10,000," she said. "Just from people registering. Fish expo is the only reason Little Angels is still open, because it provided the funds to pay payroll. And we have amazing caregivers that we want to pay well to do that job. It’s such a critical role.”

Those funds are especially important because Little Angels just became state licensed in May. That means they can serve more kids, but they must also have more staff.

The Bristol Bay Fish Expo has grown in the past three years – and it presents an opportunity – not only from people around the country to come to Bristol Bay, but also for local organizations to take their projects – and traditions – to a wider audience.

In a corner of the exhibition room were benches scrawled with graffiti.

“These benches are here as a part of the NN Cannery History Project mug up event that we’re doing to promote the upcoming exhibit that we’re doing at the Alaska state museum in Juneau,” said LaRece Egli, one of the cannery project’s organizers.

Credit Sage Smiley/KDLG
The NN Cannery History Project table at the 2019 Bristol Bay Fish Expo.

The NN Cannery Project planned mug-ups throughout the expo, where guests could get coffee and donuts, in the tradition of the short coffee breaks cannery workers used to take. 

Egli says the expo gives people a chance to learn more about the local history initiatives NN Cannery is working on, including a commemoration of wooden corks. It’s a heritage project that will be included in the Juneau exhibit.

According to Thompson, 2019 was the most successful year yet, and the feedback from participants has been exceptional.

“They’re here on the ground in Bristol Bay where the attendees are actually the fishermen and the industry people who are at work," she said. "So they’re really reaching the people that they want to reach, and at the same time serving the community at a fundraiser. That’s just like all-encompassing the industry in a trade show but it’s also supporting a non-profit. So it’s a win-win.”

Now, regional organizations and the Bristol Bay Borough are turning their focus to the summer’s next big event: Fishtival begins July 18.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.