Blessed Are the Few--Only 200 Watch Bishop Pray Over San Pedro Fishing Boats

Times Staff Writer

Draped in vestments of white and gold, Carl A. Fisher, auxiliary bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, stood in Sunday's blistering heat and sprinkled holy water from the bow of the purse seiner St. Joseph, berthed at San Pedro.

"We ask God's continued blessing upon our fishermen for their safety, for a bountiful harvest, because this is indeed so noble an enterprise," Fisher prayed. "Be kind, Lord, and listen to our prayer."

About 200 people stood on the dock at Fisherman's Wharf to listen to the bishop's words. And just 16 purse seiners--less than half the local fleet of 35--remained in harbor Sunday for the annual blessing of the fleet.

'Fish Don't Wait'

The rest were at sea, looking for mackerel, bonito, anchovies and tuna.

"You know," explained Frank Iacono, general manager of the Fishermen's Cooperative Assn., "that fish don't wait."

In a time when fishermen agree that their fleet truly needs to be blessed, Sunday's attendance was a sad reminder of the story of the San Pedro fishing industry--which, having fallen upon stormy economic seas, is only now beginning to rebound.

"I remember from the old days--you couldn't walk here," said Iacono, whose 60-year-old cooperative has 21 fishing boat owners--down from a high of about 170 in the early 1950s. "You know how many boats there would be here years ago? Maybe 200. . . . "

And compared to the crowds of 100,000 or more that used to turn out for the blessing, Iacono called Sunday's group "a handful."

Among them was Vince Dorio. Like many fishermen, the trade runs in Dorio's family. His father earned his living from the sea, as did his father's father.

Dorio said he remained in port because he thought it would be nice to bring his family to see the bishop. He also lamented that things are not as they once were.

'It's Just Not the Same'

"When I was a kid, all the boats would parade with flags like this," he said, gesturing toward the St. Joseph, which was bedecked in red, white and blue nautical banners for the occasion. "They all used to go on a cruise of the harbor.

"I don't know what the deal is now. It's just not the same."

The blessing of the fleet is an Old World tradition, brought to San Pedro by the immigrant fishermen, most Roman Catholic, who settled there.

Here, the tradition is accompanied by a weekend-long Fishermen's Fiesta, replete with carnival rides, ethnic food and a local beauty pageant--the crowning of the Junior Miss Skipperette.

But like the fishing industry it celebrates, the fiesta has also fallen upon hard times. Begun in 1946, it grew so large that in the late 1960s it attracted up to 250,000 visitors.

The parade of boats--in which each purse seiner would put on frills and cruise the harbor--was reportedly the second most photographed event in the nation, trailing only the Pasadena's Tournament of Roses Parade.

But the fiesta was abandoned in 1972, amid complaints from fishermen that it had grown too commercial and charges that public money, provided by the Los Angeles Harbor Department, was being spent for religious purposes. The fiesta was revived in 1981, but on a much smaller scale.

Two years ago, with the industry struggling due to cannery closures and foreign competition, among other factors, Iacono asked Mary Star of the Sea Roman Catholic parish to include a special Mass for the fishermen on the same day as the blessing of the fleet.

Since that time, the cooperative has purchased the former Starkist Cannery, which once was its main customer. And Iacono says the future is looking brighter.

The cannery, he said Sunday, bought $1 million worth of fish from the seiner crews in September. In the past, Iacono said, the fishermen considered it a good month if Starkist bought $350,000 worth of fish.

Despite such optimism, the tone was solemn at both Sunday morning's Mass and the afternoon blessing service.

"Times have changed," Msgr. Patrick J. Gallagher told a crowd of about 500 who gathered at Mary Star of the Sea. "The fishing industry is not what it used to be. But yet we've seen this remnant of people . . . who adjust to the changing conditions, who persevere in the face of adversity.

"We pray in a very special way for the abundance of the fish of the sea, for the fishermen, that they will truly have a great catch."

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