Memorial tile project honors, supports fishing community

The sea is as unforgiving as it is bountiful. Those who seek their livelihood upon the often tempestuous waters of the Northwest - from the Salmon Banks of the San Juan Islands to the legendary chop and toss of Alaska's Bristol Bay - face dangers most people can scarcely imagine. Many a crewmember aboard a crabber or purse-seiner has lost his or her life in pursuit of that elusive big catch.

Established in 1985, the Seattle Fishermen's Memorial Committee is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the memory of workers lost or killed at sea, creating safer on-board working conditions and ministering to survivors and families within the fishing community who are overcoming a seagoing tragedy.

If fun and education are the organizing spirit of the Fishermen's Fall Festival taking place Saturday, Oct. 1, at Magnolia's Fishermen's Terminal, the heart of that festival is the Fishermen's Memorial. The centerpiece of Saturday's activities will be the formal unveiling and dedication of the Fishermen's Memorial Tile monument, a fundraising project that provides support and training to fishing families, as well as a means of honoring and remembering those who have been lost at sea.

President Craig Cross of the Fishermen's Memorial, along with a handful of industry luminaries, will preside over the noontime dedication, which will be followed by a live musical performance by John Van Amerongen.

Cross says he's been amazed at the community's response to the tile project, which honors not only those lost at sea but also deceased members of the fishing community who made significant contribution to the industry, as well as those who sponsor and support the organization.

"It's incredible, especially now that they're there," Cross says of the recently installed tiles. "For a person like me, I can see that there's space for me someday. Our hope is that the ability to fill those tiles will go on for 50, a hundred years.

"That's a huge pavilion," he adds, "with hundreds and hundreds of blank tiles."

For Cross, however, the tiles represent just a piece, albeit an important one, of the memorial project, which seeks to address all aspects of life and death within the fishing community. An educational scholarship fund was established in 1999 to help ease the financial burden of survivors of fishing-related tragedy, and a grievance counselor has been made available free of charge to assist family members in coping with loss.

"The grief counselor is huge," Cross says. "He's taken it to a whole new level." Because crews aboard fishing or crabbing vessels work in such close proximity, any loss of life - whether through mishap or natural causes - is felt that much more acutely, he explains, adding that the ethos of rugged, stoical individualism prized at sea can compound the hurt by keeping emotions bottled up inside.

"The crew gets pretty traumatized," says Cross, who has worked in the fishing industry for 35 years. "We all try to push past it ... tend to look at passing away as part of the business. But we're still affected by it."

He recounts a recent phone call from a fisherman's widow who had remarried and thanked the memorial committee for the support she had received during her bereavement. "The ability of the committee to support these instances with the counselor has been big," Cross says. "This is a way for us to give these people an outlet that is secure."

Safety training is also a major aspect of the committee's work. The program provides funding to vessels that take part in courses ranging from CPR and firefighting to advanced vessel stability and at-sea survival training. Cross says such training is a vast improvement over the days, not too long ago, when life vests remained stowed away even in the most perilous of conditions. "You can't even make a comparison," he says of the difference between safety conditions then and now. "We've got a long way to go, don't get me wrong."

Cross says he's more than pleased with the progress the Fishermen's Memorial has made of late. In the future, he says he'd like to arrive at a day when the scholarship program is fully endowed. And beyond that?

"Hopefully," Cross adds, "we get to the point where we're not adding names to the memorial."

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