United in loss: fishing fleet blessed at annual ceremony

Two hundred and eighteen names are engraved on the Alaska Commercial Fishermen’s Memorial, a half circle of stone facing the water in downtown Juneau. Seven will be added this year, making 225 in total.

All of them devoted their lives to commercial fishing. For some, the memorial is their only grave site: those whose names are marked with a star were lost at sea, their bodies never recovered. For 28 years, the memorial has stood as their collective headstone.

On Saturday, the commercial fishing community gathered to honor those lost and to bless the current fleet. It’s an occasion for reflection and unity before the commercial salmon season starts in earnest.

One of the country’s top-50 ports for commercial landings, the Juneau fleet’s 640 vessels earn an estimated $21.2 million in ex-vessel income each year, according to Frances Leach, executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska.

But safety should always come before profit, Leach said. In an industry as competitive and dangerous as commercial fishing, events like the Blessing of the Fleet and Reading of the Names remind the industry where its priorities should lie.

“Most of you can attest, when our family waves goodbye to us at the dock, they are not telling us to go out and catch lots of fish and make lots of money. OK, well, maybe some of them are, but most of them are telling us to be safe and to return home safely, because that’s all that matters,” Leach said.

The ceremonies started with a laying of the wreath, this year conducted by commercial gillnet vessel the F/V Sentinel. Fishing vessels then circled through in front of the memorial to receive a blessing, given by Fr. Gordon Blue, of the Holy Episcopal Church.

Carl Brodersen, board member at the Alaska Commercial Fishermen’s Memorial, then read the names of each of the 225 honored by the memorial. Brodersen shares a surname with two of them. The memorial is personal to him, something he shares with many of the board members.

“Most of the people who are on the board have names on the wall. It’s emotionally moving, of course, but it’s also nice to come here and remember them in a large public way,” Brodersen said.

The grieving process never really ends, Brodersen added, so it’s nice for those without the closure of a grave site to have somewhere to go.

“There are 225 names on the wall, and each one of them has somebody who misses them dearly, and as the grieving process goes on and on and on, this is a nice way to help with that,” Brodersen said. “After about a year, the rest of the world seems to have moved on when you haven’t, necessarily. So it’s nice to bring everyone together to focus in on what is still a very real emotional experience.”

Walter Bennett Sr., 70, has a brother and a father on the wall. Joe Bennett Sr., his father, died in 2004. His brother, Joe Bennett Jr., died in 2010. Bennett Sr. spent about 30 years purse seine fishing with his father on the F/V Arline.

“It means a lot. It’s an honor to them,” Bennett Sr. said.

The City and Borough of Juneau kept cruise ships from docking near the memorial during the ceremony, Brodersen said. There’s been a misconception that the Fishermen’s Memorial board has had bad experiences with the city, he added, but he and the board were grateful that the city allowed them to conduct the ceremony without cruise ships in the way.

• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 and kgullufsen@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.

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