The Blessing of the Fleet is celebrated in several Catholic fishing communities in Southern Louisiana each year to mark the beginning of the shrimping season. Chauvin, Louisiana’s annual ‘boat blessing’ ceremony is a true modern processional on the water, in which one or more priests float down the bayou and pray for each of the community’s shrimping vessels as they pass by. The blessed boats then fall into place at the end of a growing parade line, and the entire community heads out to Lake Boudreaux for an afternoon on the water.
A tradition that began centuries ago in Mediterranean fishing communities, the Blessing of the Fleet has been reinterpreted and redefined around the world and varies widely according to local tradition. Celebrations range from simple rituals to elaborate festivals lasting several days. While the actual blessing is meant to ensure a safe and bountiful season of work, in communities like Chauvin this rite is now performed amidst parties, contests, and revelry that bring the entire town together to celebrate. Each trawler is painstakingly decorated with streamers and signs and the boat deemed the prettiest wins the honor of hosting the priests and leading the next year’s procession.
In recent years, the Gulf Coast shrimping industry has been threatened by rising fuel prices and environmental change. Pollution from oil spills and the continued destruction of fragile coastal ecosystems have devastated the tenuous balance on which Chauvin’s economy depends, but the camaraderie and communal history of this Louisiana fishing community prevails in their annual boat blessing celebration.
NPR has been telling this larger story through the experience of the Chauvin family, fifth generation shrimpers and advocates for their community and livelihood. You can find several installments of The Disappearing Coast series as well the audio piece which my work accompanies here: After Oil Spill, Shrimpers Hope For Blessed Season.
It was great to work with NPR on this story and I think they’re doing a fantastic job of personalizing the current situation along the Gulf Coast. Spending even a little time in shrimping country is enough to know that an amazingly unique and rich cultural heritage is at stake, and that it’s completely entwined with the changing economy of shrimping and fishing in the Gulf Coast… like a trawl net.