One of North Carolina’s oldest most important industries, commercial fishing and seafood, was proudly on display this past weekend as a hundred thousand or more visitors packed the Morehead City waterfront to celebrate the N.C. Seafood Festival. Sunny skies and pleasant temperatures made for perfect weather and a welcomed relief from the past two years of stress and quarantines in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but in the end it was seafood that made the difference.
The festival has faced a variety of challenges over the past four years but this year’s event showed resiliency of the concept, its board and the very industry that it promotes- commercial fishing. Founded in 1987, the festival has been interrupted only twice over the past 35 years, first in 2018 when Hurricane Florence devastated the county and region forcing the festival to cancel, and then again last year when the festival was forced to shift to virtual activities due to Governor Cooper’s forced quarantine restrictions.
Despite these challenges the festival and its goals were only momentarily interrupted. As seen by the outpouring of attendance and active participation by vendors, it has become an iconic event that can withstand any challenge.
The key component for the success of the event is attributable to the core mission which is to celebrate one of the state’s most valuable and oldest industries- commercial fishing and the unique product of the industry, wild-caught seafood.
Granted, much of the focus on the weekend’s activities were entertainment oriented but throughout the festival area there were constant reminders of seafood such as an Oyster Shucking and Steam Bar, and multiple tents with chefs providing cooking tips and tasting opportunities.
Those demonstrations along with a presentation of fishing gear and techniques as part of N.C. Fisheries Association’s Fisherman’s Village offered visitors opportunities to not only taste the benefits of wild-caught seafood but to get a better understanding of the investment in time and materials needed to produce a product that the N.C. Agriculture promotes as “got to be NC.”
Not only was the seafood industry on display this weekend, so was the town of Morehead City, which did a superb job of providing a welcoming atmosphere. Somehow the town kept traffic interruptions to a minimum as thousands of cars poured into the city looking for parking. Through it all, the city maintained a steady hand on crowd control making the weekend move as smooth as a gentle glide on calm waters.
The capstone of the weekend festivities was the annual Blessing of the Fleet conducted at the Morehead City State Port Sunday morning to recognize and remember the sacrifice and commitment individuals and families have made on behalf of the commercial fishing industry.
Designed as an outdoor church service, the program concluded with a procession of work boats and commercial fishing vessels, with each vessel’s owner dedicating their passing in memory of deceased individuals and families who have committed their lives to working on the water.
In spite of the fuel cost and the hours of travel required for the boat owners and crews to participate in the blessing, a surprising number of vessels, including several last minute arrivals, took part in the procession. Several boats from New Bern and one from Sneads Ferry showcased that this is more than a Carteret County event, it is in fact a North Carolina event.
This year’s blessing was dedicated to Jonathan Robinson, a former state legislator and county commissioner who died earlier this year. Because of Jonathan’s previous experience as a commercial fisherman and his efforts as a state legislator to stand up for the industry, he had the honor of providing the welcoming message at every Blessing since its inception 22 years ago.
While Jonathan’s presence was missing at this year’s Blessing, his annual message was not and it was as poignant this year as when he last presented it in 2019. Describing those fishermen and their families as “the most creative and ingenious people,” he noted their intrinsic value to their communities and the state. “They were the ones who built the courthouses, built the schools, built the churches along the coast,” his message reads.
Jonathan’s welcoming speech accurately captures the core purpose of what makes the North Carolina Seafood Festival so special and so successful. It is more than just the product or the entertainment, it’s the people who were being celebrated during the festivities and most notably during the Blessing of the Fleet.
Stephanie McIntyre, festival executive director expressed this very concept to News-Times Sports Editor Dennis Thomason in explaining why the festival has been so successful in spite of numerous challenges. “The festival is about so much more than most people know. It’s about love, passion, hard work, ideas, sweat, friendships old and new, relationship, community and service…”
Every day a fisherman has to wonder if he or she will be successful as they start their day. The challenges are many and varied, to include tide, weather, equipment that doesn’t always work or needs constant repair, and a trust that their endeavors will be respected at the end of the day. But as Mrs. McIntyre noted, it is passion, hard work and community that keep these fishermen working every day because above all it’s a calling that they love and one that we celebrate the first weekend of October with the N.C. Seafood Festival.