It’s a balmy Sunday morning at State Port in Morehead City, N.C., where hundreds of people gather to witness the Blessing of the Fleet. Dignitaries, clergymen and regular folk listen to testimonies of hardship, endurance, pride and strength exhibited by local commercial fishermen, generation after generation.
The solemn ceremony asks for divine protection and intervention for a bountiful year. It is dedicated to those who continue to fish, and to the memories of those who sacrificed their lives, as commercial fishermen and family members place black wreaths in the water. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, commercial fishing remains the most dangerous job in the United States with 116 fatalities per 100,000 workers.
This profession is vital to the economic welfare of coastal counties and the supply of local seafood for the state and nation. Close proximity to the Gulf Stream’s warm water, relatively good weather year-round, and abundant fish in the coastal inlets, rivers and sounds have bolstered the region’s proud seafood heritage since the 1800s.
Along the barrier islands that became home to hardy, self-sustaining families, fishing was not just work but a proud and honorable way of life. Some of the fishing villages and islands have been inhabited for centuries, with generations still speaking dialects reminiscent of Elizabethan English.
Before the days of GPS and satellite weather, these men learned to read the sky, the color of the water and the winds. The weather could be a blessing or a curse – they went out either way. On board, the crew maintains the integrity of their lines, nets and boat. New recruits season quickly. The job does not stop at the dock. Entire families pitch in to unload, clean and sort the catches, take it to market, pack it at the plant, or feed their families.
Today, fishermen contend with more than the sea and weather. They comply with state and federal regulations for time and size of catch, threatened and endangered species regulations, environmental policies, boat and license taxes and fluctuating fuel charges. The results are higher prices for local seafood and the importation of seafood from other regions of the country and abroad. The numbers of N.C. fishing boats have dwindled. Families are moving away from the fishing villages, changing their livelihood and lifestyle.
This year’s Blessing of the Fleet occurs at 10 a.m., Oct. 6 during the N.C. Seafood Festival (see Fall Festival Feature), which celebrates the historical and integral role of commercial fishing in Carteret County.