Perhaps you did not know this about the Seafood Fest, Saturday, Jan. 25!

Tradition, freshly caught seafood  at the Port Salerno Seafood Fest

The future of the 14-year-old Port Salerno Seafood Festival may, for now, be in limbo, but organizers are busy with upgrades to this year’s event to try to make it more comfortable to visitors and more palatable to residential neighbors.

The festival – recently chosen as a top tourism event for January by the Martin County Office of Tourism and Marketing – is Saturday, Jan. 25, 10 a.m., to 8 p.m., along the waterfront, east of Dixie Highway at the eastern end of Salerno Road.

Festival organizers, through the Port Salerno Commercial Fishing Dock Authority, had hoped last October that the county would extend the festival into two days this year. The county nixed the idea, based on complaints by some of the Port Salerno residents who live in the impacted area.

In addition to denying the additional day, the commissioners told organizers of the festival – which has seen an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 visitors come through the gates in recent years – that this would be the final year at its waterfront location and would have to move to a new spot next year.

At subsequent meetings, however, their hard stance softened a bit, with some commissioners adopting a wait-and-see-what-happens attitude with this year’s festival.

The festival area encompasses sections of Salerno Road and Seaward Street, east of Dixie Highway, along with DeSoto Avenue, Park Drive, Bayview Street and Mulford Lane.

Port Salerno resident John Hennessee, president of Port Salerno Community Promotions and a co-founder of the festival, returned this year to organize the event. He’s announced numerous changes for a “better festival experience” for visitors and residents alike, including:

  • Large circus-pole tents will be set up to allow visitors to enjoy meals in shade.
  • Instead of buying food tickets, patrons will pay cash for meals to the vendors, many of whom are fishermen, who will keep 100 percent of the profits.
  • The festival will close at 8 p.m., and two additional Martin County Sheriff’s Office deputies will actively patrol the streets until about 2 a.m.
  • Residents who live on blocked streets will have private access to a concierge parking service on Seaward Street.
  • A dedicated phone number to reach a team of volunteers to respond to complaints or concerns has been provided to residents, which will be activated from 5 p.m. on Friday and all day Saturday until after the festival closes.
  • The cleanup crew will be more pro-active in picking up litter along Park Drive, Seward Street and Salerno Road, DeSoto Avenue, Bayview Street, Mulford Lane, as well as Commerce Lane and Railway Avenue.

“People have commented (in previous years) that by noon on Sunday, that they’re not even aware that there was a festival,” Hennessee said.

What first began as a neighborhood fish fry decades ago, then a fish fry and a dock party along the waterfront, the festival now is under the auspices of the 35-member Port Salerno Commercial Fishing Dock Authority Inc., a 501c5 nonprofit corporation formed in July 2004.

The festival’s main function is to raise funds to operate and maintain, year-round, the docks used by commercial fishermen in Port Salerno and throughout the area, according to Dock Authority President Thomas Haluska, who addressed the county commission in October.

“The funds go to operational costs and maintenance,” Haluska said. “Last year alone, we spent over $50,000 just on one single platform and the drive to allow the fork truck to operate on the platform.”

Edward Olsen Jr., Dock Authority executive director, said in an email that the group is committed to keeping the historical, long-standing practice of commercial fishing alive and well in Port Salerno. It is one of the few state-designated “Working Waterfronts” along the Florida coast.

The Dock Authority provides a place and the necessary equipment for local fishermen to safely and efficiently conduct their business, including storing their vessels, getting underway, and returning to offload their catch and showcase it for purchase,

“Basically, we ensure that seafood from off our shores gets from the line to the local — and in many cases to the national — market,” Olsen said.

While more than 100 different fishermen use the facilities seasonally to offload, the Dock Authority’s lease agreement with Martin County limits it to 35 members, according to Olsen. “We’re happy with that number because we believe it’s right-sized to serve our small fishing community and still remain compatible with a residential area,” he said in an email.

The Dock Authority was first formed by local fishing families who owned and maintained those docks for many years before the organization came into being, according to Olsen. If someone passes away or gives up a spot, the Dock Authority is allowed to find commercial fishermen who can fill it through a lottery.

At present, two slips are open, so ads have been placed in the local newspaper and on MCTV to get the word out about the openings, he said.

Haluska clarified in his comments to the county commission that the festival is not the Dock Authority’s only source of income, but without it over the last five years, he said, “we’d probably be in the hole over $30,000 in operational costs.”

A unique aspect of the fund-raising philosophy is that the Dock Authority does not keep all the money for itself. It shares what it does not absolutely need with other non-profit community organizations and schools, which has been up to 75 percent of its net proceeds.

Dozens of organizations have received funds, including Murray Middle School, Port Salerno Elementary, Pine Rest Cemetery, Port Salerno United Methodist Church, Road to Victory Museum and South Fork High School Baseball Team.

Also often overlooked are the artists of the Port Salerno Art Center, who depend on the crowds of visitors who come to their shops on that one day of the year. It’s their “Black Friday” that allows them to remain open the rest of the year.

Hennessee is confident that the changes they’ve made this year will make a huge impact. “(The county commissioners) are not planning on discontinuing the festival,” Hennessee said recently, “and they’re not going to move it to the (Martin County) fairgrounds or to Sandsprit Park.”

Indeed, it would be hard to imagine the Port Salerno Seafood Festival anywhere but on the Port Salerno waterfront.

–Jeff Alexander, Special to Martin County Currents

Applications for the open slips at the Port Salerno Dock Authority are due by Jan. 31. Membership is open to full-time Martin County residents — commercial fishermen only — who possess and maintain a valid state Saltwater Products License with a Restricted Species Endorsment. Applicants also must have his or her own vessel with a valid Florida Commercial Vessel Registration. (For a membership application form, call Olsen at 772-263-1735; completed applications should be sent to the Port Salerno Commercial Fishing Dock Authority, P.O. Box 567, Port Salerno, FL 34992.).