Annual blessing of the Bodega Bay fishing fleet marks a shorter and uncertain salmon season

By Rebecca Fanning
Bodega Bay, Calif.

The Karen Jeanne rocks and sways as Dick Ogg steers out of Bodega Harbor, past the rocky breakwall where surf-casting fishermen wave from their perches.

Behind him, an array of boats fall into line, each decorated with signs and flags, their decks full of fishermen, families and friends. To some this route is a familiar morning commute, the first turn on a many-miles journey in pursuit of albacore tuna, salmon, Dungeness crab or sablefish, depending on the season. To commercial fishermen the harbor marks the safe haven after a dangerous journey. For others, today offers a rare boating adventure – a chance to picnic, take photos and crack open a beer before noon.

AN OCEAN IN TRANSITION

But today is about more than just socializing. It’s day two of the 45th annual Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Festival and time for the annual Blessing of the Fleet, a centuries-old tradition which began in predominantly Catholic, Mediterranean fishing communities. According to tradition, a priest or pastor blesses the community’s fishing boats to ensure a bountiful harvest and safe return to the harbor.

Family and friends on board Ogg’s boat the Karen Jeanne. (Rebecca Fanning/Medill)

Dick Ogg’s slender build, kind expression and his smooth, tanned skin makes him appear younger than his 65 years. He estimates that he has attended the blessing for more than 25 years, though he’s lived in Sonoma County for much longer, moving here with his family when he was 7. The retired electrician once used fishing as a way to supplement his income, but now he’s taken to the water full-time.

“I’m always reminded of guys I’ve known who aren’t around anymore. Things happen out at sea.” – Dick Ogg

Ogg tells the story of a friend who was run over in a shipping lane, and another who passed away out at sea. But death is only one kind of tragedy that strikes the area’s fishermen.

In Bodega Bay, the blessing tradition began nearly 60 years ago and marked the start of a once-fruitful salmon season. But as regulators scramble to protect declining salmon populations, the season has become shorter and shorter. The California Fish and Wildlife announced earlier this month that commercial salmon fishing in this area would open late – not until July 26 –  and would run for barely two months. The late start cuts the commercial season in half, and with it the chance to make a living.

“The salmon fishery has been diminished to the point that there’s not enough money to make it through the season,” Ogg says, adding that Dungeness crab is the only fishery remaining that provides close to enough money to support working fishermen in the bay. And even then the owners of boats often can’t afford full-time employees when crab season slows.

“I have some bills that aren’t going away,” says one of the crew members on Ogg’s boat.  He tells me about his fear of a less-than-lucrative salmon season and his plan to seek summer work in Alaska’s more fruitful Bristol Bay or as a tuna fisherman in his native Atlantic waters off the east coast.

He says he’s not planning to wait to find out how the salmon yield. He’s already contacted several commercial fishing vessels in hopes of hopping aboard.

For now Pacific salmon join red abalone and Pacific halibut on the list of closed California fisheries. This year marks the first-ever closure for recreational red abalone, though the commercial fishery has been closed since 1996 and other abalone species placed on endangered species lists.

BLESSING WHAT REMAINS

Right now, Ogg is fishing for black cod, a sustainable white fish often called sablefish, considered a best choice or good alternative by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood watch. But black cod quotas are limited, and the real money still comes from Dungeness crab, a declining industry.

As the boat turns the bend, dense waves crash against Bird Rock, a local landmark named for the persistent birds that land on its surface, their white waste leaving a kind of organic graffiti on the gray stone. The skies are a brilliant blue, but dark clouds linger at their edges, a reminder of the dangers that lurk in open oceans.

Out on the water the harbormaster radio announces the start of the ceremony. The priest leans over a woven flower wreath and the prayers begin.

On board the Karen Jeanne, the crew goes silent, necks craned as all listen to the Lord’s Prayer, reminders of fishermen past and a few references to Jesus and his admiration for fishermen.

Ogg steers the boat closer to the action. “I could use all the blessing I can get,” he says.

As storm clouds cover the sun and boats speed back to the safety of the harbor, the priest blesses each boat, scattering holy water from a gold chalice into the salty air. Before he’s fully docked, raindrops speckle Ogg’s glasses and guests duck into the cabin, reminded of the uncertainty of nature and life on the water.

Photo at top: Fisherman Dick Ogg steers his boat the Karen Jeanne to the Blessing of the Fleet ceremony on Bodega Bay. (Rebecca Fanning/Medill)