Best Seafood Fest yet Key West

Chamber estimates seafood fest was biggest yet
By organizers’ accounts, this year was the biggest yet for the Original Marathon Seafood Festival.

The Marathon Chamber of Commerce and the Marathon chapter of the Organized Fishermen of Florida estimate slightly more than 20,000 people attended the event held at Marathon Community Park last Saturday and Sunday. Last year, the Chamber counted about 18,000 people.

“I know we beat out last year on beer kegs,” said Chamber CEO Daniel Samess. Attendees drained about 145 kegs of beer this year.

“We ran out of everything,” said Marathon Councilman and commercial fisherman Pete Worthington. “At 4:30 we were totally out of fish.”

“What’s real encouraging is that the majority of our festival goers are from out of county,” Samess said. “It’s a real heads in beds initiative, which is great for our local economy.”

Steady crowds packed the events fields all day Saturday and Sunday while local musicians played in the amphitheater and vendors sold their wares. Climbing walls, bungee jumps and bounce rooms were just a few of the activities for children and raucous adults.

“We try to add a little bit every year,” Samess said. “We had more kids’ rides this year. We added the art guild in the parking lot. We sold out every vendor spot. We’ve been steadily increasing the quality of our vendors.”

Fishermen agreed that things are looking up for the festival.

“The quality is up. The quantity is up,” said Bennett Orr, of OFF’s board of directors. “It gives us a chance to talk to people we don’t talk to.”

The festival is a leg up during a hard time for the commercial fishing industry.

“It’s been a tough year, with the deflated prices,” Worthington said. “It kind of feels like there’s an awful lot of product coming in to the U.S. from overseas. And the restaurant business has fallen off. The only savior to the season was we didn’t have a hurricane.”

Orr stressed the fishing industry is an important part of Marathon’s history, and important to share with the community.

“Commercial fishing has been here before any tourist in town,” he said. “It supported Marathon from the beginning. We’re trying to say that this is what it’s all about. We’re just trying to remind you of our heritage.”

But sharing history isn’t all the festival allows OFF, or the Chamber, to do.

“We support every nonprofit in town,” Orr said of the funds raised from the event. “We go overboard. We’re great supporters of Marathon High School … their scholarship program. We’re dedicated to the Marathon youth club, soccer, mostly it’s all directed to the kids.”

Beyond donations to the children, the community as a whole benefits as well.

“Unused paper goods and cans go to Grace Jones Day Care center. Everything that can be is purchased locally,” Orr said.

A portion of the funds are also sent to the main state office of OFF to help cover the costs of lobbying on fisheries management issues.

The Chamber said it’s portion of funds also supports the community.

“This allows us to sponsor nonprofits throughout the year,” Samess said. “As the seafood festival is more successful, it allows us to increase our budget,” which goes to advertising the area and scholarships, among other things.

Up next for the Chamber is a new event, Conchtoberfest at Hawks Cay resort. The event will draw together the tourist resort and local businesses by hosting a themed party at a different restaurant every night after the main fair-style event at the resort.

“It’s Octoberfest with a Keys twist,” Samess said. “Keys cuisine, vendors and music.”

Samess said the Chamber is putting out a lot of new ideas, but being careful not to spread itself too thin.

“We want to focus on these new initiatives and grow them,” he said. “But I want to encourage other people to do events, like the Dragon Boats and National Pig Day. We support that as much as we can. We’re going to help with advice, direction. We’ll always be involved.”