Juneau ranked 41st in the U.S. for seafood production by weight in 2016, with the town’s 396 commercial permit holders pulling down 16.7 million pounds of seafood worth $22.5 million, according to statistics from the Commercial Fishery Entry Commission.
But the town’s gillnetters, seiners, crabbers, trollers and longliners are more than economic engines. They’re parents, daughters, sons, brothers and sisters who work dangerous jobs.
The annual Blessing of the Fleet, which took place Saturday at the Commercial Fishermen’s Memorial in downtown Juneau, seeks to honor those who have given their lives to harvesting the seas and to safeguard those who still do.
Facing the memorial and a crowd of about a hundred, event organizer Carl Brodersen read each of the 247 names engraved on the granite memorial. Each dedicated their lives to commercial fishing. Forty-seven of the memorialized died at sea.
“Harold Oluf Fossum, Leroy Harold Martin, Frederick G. Martin, Andre Beaton, Rodney P. Selvig, Marc Livingston, Keith Lapiene,” Brodersen read. “Bob Younger, Bruce Gleason, Mark and Christine Brodersen, Dota E. Brown, Reuel ‘Red’ Fleming.”
Some raised their hand in salute as names of friends and family were read. Girl Scout Troop 4018 handed out flowers.
The event is the town’s way to pay tribute to the enduring and culturally-significant industry.
Boats lined up in behind a cruise ship dock to receive the blessing.
The F/V Marsons, skippered by Chris McDowell, was the first boat to be blessed and held the honors of the Laying of the Wreath, a ceremonial offering of flowers to the sea.
Friar Gordon Blue of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church blessed the vessels, each on their way to what they hope will be a productive and safe season. Acting as a volunteer with the church, Michael Grubbs assisted Blue by flinging holy water toward the boats.
In line for a blessing was the F/V Sentinel, skippered by Juneau’s Sam Miller. Miller has been fishing since childhood. At 48 years old, he’s worked many of Southeast’s fisheries.
He goes to the blessing every year he can, though sometimes work prevents him from attending.
“I have a lot of friends on that wall, so it means a lot to me,” Miller said. “Matter of fact, I had on my boat today a widow of one of my good friends that’s on the wall. Her husband died about 15 years ago fishing.”
Miller’s three children also fish. One of his sons took over his old boat, the Lucky J’s, which he works during the salmon gillnet season.
Sick of gillnetting, Miller’s daughter decided to take a fishing job this summer out of Elfin Cove, a small fishing community west of Juneau and close to productive commercial trolling grounds.
It can be hard sometimes, Miller said, to have nearly his entire family working such a dangerous job.
“You’re always worried, but it’s the worry that brings you back alive. If you don’t worry, you’re not being cautious. You have to respect the ocean,” he said.
Commercial fishing is one of the state’s deadliest professions, but fishing-related deaths have declined in recent years. From 1990-2008, one-third of all work-related deaths in Alaska occurred to fishermen, according to statistics from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
But that rate has decreased 42 percent since the early 1990s. In 1990, 1991 and 1992, more than thirty fishermen died each year. That number hasn’t topped 15 since 2008.
The Commercial Fishermen’s Memorial will include six new engravings in 2017: Maurice “Pug” Nelson, Lester “Spike” Henkins, Rocky Lee Reed, Paul Dayton Fredrick, Steve Erickson and Mark J. Burger.
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or email@example.com.