Blessing on the fleets

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One of the biggest annual boat blessings in Terrebonne Parish was seen by some as a bust Sunday, after organizers canceled the event due to threats of severe weather.

But a boat still traveled Bayou Grand Caillou and a priest, the Rev. Joey Pilola, still prayed for the safety of all during the coming season.

The event did not qualify as the spectacle it usually is, but Pilola saw it as a victory for the faithful nonetheless.

Later this month, April 27, the boats of Bayou Little Caillou will make their way to Lake Boudreaux; they will most likely be decorated as so many boats at the blessings have been in the past. The Rev. Frederic Brunet, although not feeling well of late, will most likely don his captain’s cap and officiate, boarding as the church bells of St. Joseph Church toll the noon hour.

And this year there is a surprise. On Saturday, April 26, shrimpers who berth at Bayou Terrebonne, in Montegut, will have their first boat blessing in more than a quarter century.

All of this is proof that despite numerous setbacks commercial fishing is alive and well in Terrebonne and surrounding parishes, although much has changed over the past decade or so.

The fishery has evolved to a point where shrimpers are no longer slaves to the whims of a global market if they don’t want to be. Those who are willing and able have learned new techniques for catching, storing and selling their shrimp. Some have paired up with big national specialty retailers such as Dolce & Gabbana, offering boutique seafood at expected high prices.

Hurricanes, squashed prices due to global trade and even a landmark oil spill have not caused the shrimpers to fail, and in some cases a new mindset is resulting in new minds entering the fishery, young people who believe they can make a viable living doing what their fathers and grandfathers did, making a living off this region’s seafood bounty.

It is easy to forget about these men and women, who work so hard but have never received proper local recognition for their labors, who live the America dream by maintaining their freedom and independence.

There are no shrimp boats above the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, although some whose captains travel its waters are cursed – like all boat operators requiring that drawbridges be open – by motorists delayed from arriving at their destinations.

Out of sight means out of mind; the oil and gas business is booming and very much in need of infrastructure, so it is in the forefront of the minds of many.

But Louisiana’s billion-dollar seafood industry is in need of community support as well.

Its participants need stereotypes cast aside by their neighbors. They need recognition that they are vital to the local economy, that they matter and that they are worthy of attention.

Their impact may not be seen but it is felt. They buy new trucks from local dealerships. Their efforts require food on board, and local grocery outlets know this. The shrimpers, crabbers and other commercial fishermen buy clothes for their families and also new cars and trucks. Their dollars are spread all throughout the local business arena. But, still, they are not spoken of by many.

They just keep doing what they do, too concerned with making a living to be concerned with much else.

But they are there.

In the communities where big shrimp boats are the closest thing there to skyscrapers, their booms stand tall and proud, speaking for their captains without uttering words.

They speak of tradition, of an industry that has persevered without government subsidies, through the sheer will of the people who are part of it.

Many success stories come from these communities where the boats are so visible. Houses have been bought and paid for with the money they have earned. Children have gone to college and made lives in land-based businesses here and elsewhere.

And yes, in some cases – mostly with the smaller boats – shrimping has given work to people who are not necessarily qualified to do much else.

But that is also a good thing; it should particularly be valued by those who don’t want to see folks seeking handouts from government.

As this shrimp season nears, as the boats receive their blessings, I offer my own prayers for their safety and their success. I plan to see them show off on the boat blessing days. I hope you might do that, too. Take some time to stand on a bayou bank and watch the boats go by.

The players always do better when they know someone is cheering them on.