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Dungeness Crab & Seafood Festival

Celebrating a favorite local crustacean

Unbelievably, 17 years ago on the Olympic Peninsula, it was tough to find fresh seafood in restaurants or stores. No matter that it was being pulled from local waters; it was harvested and sent elsewhere.

Scott Nagel was involved with international events, workshops, and conferences. In his travels, he would ask to try the local seafood. He would be served oysters from Hood Canal or, in pricier restaurants, Dungeness crab. Neil Conklin had opened Bella Italia restaurant in Port Angeles in 1996 and created the concept of Olympic Coast Cuisine. Along with a few other people, they started the Dungeness Crab & Seafood Festival (lovingly known as CrabFest) to bring attention to the area's seafood and celebrate Dungeness crab.

"It started small with a cooking demonstration and the crab derby," recalls Scott. "We had 25 people the first year. We seeded the harbor around the pier with crab. Now they're in holding tanks and you "crab" for 10 minutes. If you get a specially-tagged crab, you get to take it home. Or you can buy it at market value and take it home live. For a donation, the crab will be cleaned and cooked. This is our biggest and most unique event. We started at Waterfront Park downtown and now have the Red Lion parking lot, and the pier. Being on the water makes it very special." Cooking demos have gone from one to many, with items focused on local ingredients.

"Our biggest growth has been since the end of the recession. From about 2008-2012, people were looking for fun, inexpensive things to do." CrabFest offers free admission; you pay for the crab dinner, to buy crab or items from the food booths to eat. There are vendors; live music; a 5k fun run; rowing demonstrations; the Crab Revival with the CrabFest Revival Choir (gospel music on Sunday); the famous crab dinner, regional restaurants serving food; wine and beer, organized by the Olympic Peninsula Wineries Association; a chowder cook-off; and much more. "The food booths were a way to introduce people to fresh fish, since they weren't getting it back then," laughs Scott.


CrabFest has grown in many ways. Last year their crab distributor, High Tide Seafoods, sold over eight tons of whole crab (and that doesn't count what was used by the restaurants in their booths). "Crab is kept live in tanks, then fork-lifted in as needed," says Scott. "We track online ticket sales for the crab dinner and know that last year we had people from 25 states here, and Canada. People love to sit at the long tables in Crab Central and meet others from all over. Before CrabFest, tourism faded at the end of summer. Now it goes through October and the Port Angeles hotels are sold out. We market to the entire region, so people know what their options are. It's all close physically; you don't have to stay in Port Angeles." In addition, the Crab Central Tent keeps increasing in size, now filling the entire street with seven sections, holding over 1000 people. This is where you'll find the crab dinner, music, wine and beer, and restaurant booths. More regional restaurants are being added: Ocean Shores, Port Townsend, Westport, plus groups like the one that does paella at the Farmers Market. They've added a Coast Guard search and rescue demonstration and have done recycled art; they've been at the forefront of beach clean-up for years. Cooking demos include regional and national chefs.

Expanding to the pier was a big step as well. "That has sort of given us two separate festivals. There's no alcohol on the pier, but there is a stage, craft booths, and great food booths, including oysters in each area: Taylor Shellfish in Crab Central and Jamestown Seafood on the pier. Plus, Hama Hama does a cooking demo. One of the things that helped propel the food booths was working with Black Ball Ferries. They sell out the ferry every day during CrabFest, bringing 1000 people at a time from Canada. It's a day trip: ferry ride, all day at the Festival, and then home on the ferry. People come back every year. Each year we also find ways to handle volume more efficiently and provide better service. We now own 8-10 crab pots because we've grown beyond local availability for rentals.

"CrabFest is a point of local pride for us," says Scott. "People respond to that. The cabbage for the cole slaw comes from Nash's Organic Produce and the corn comes through Sunny Farms (grown in Eastern Washington), both from Sequim. The crab feed is the main fundraiser, and we donate to a variety of local organizations. Some are groups who volunteer at the Festival, some are gifts that support other events, and some are cash donations."

Good things to remember about the event: the Olympic Peninsula is a gorgeous region with all kinds of activities. Plan a trip that includes CrabFest and see the area. Know that CrabFest never runs out of crab; it's the real thing from the source and they have plenty. And, if for some unfathomable reason, you are not a crab eater, there are other options at the restaurant booths. It's a fun way to meet people, enjoy the activities, and savor what is one of our best local delicacies.

Dungeness Crab & Seafood Festival

October 5-7, 2018
122 N. Lincoln Street (Red Lion Hotel)
Port Angeles, WA 98262

Head Chef Chris Wagnon shovels fresh crab with the help of volunteer Bill Franklin.

Connie Adams/August 2018

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