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Coastal Festival Honors Long-Time Shrimping Industry and it’s Crews

Apr 10 2014

by Anna Ferguson Hall

This weekend, the sleepy southern coastal town of Darien, Ga., will come to life, thanks to the 47th annual Blessing of the Fleet Festival. This whirl-wide three-day fest is a gathering that attracts more than 35,000 people each year and pays homage to the fishing and shrimping community which has for decades been the life-blood of the community.

While the central element of the festival is the vessel blessing with area clergy, held at 2 p.m. Sunday, the days and hours leading up to the spiritual ceremony promise to be packed with entertainment for the whole family. And for me, the associate editor and social media director at the community’s newspaper, The Darien News, the fest’s reach extends far beyond the weekend’s celebration, to encompasses weeks of work to prep the newspaper’s massive week-of-the-festival edition. (Truly, the week of the festival, our newspaper is as large as the Christmas edition. It’s a BIG task for our small staff.)

It was a pleasure, though, to dig into the spirit of the community and get a feel for folks love of the event. Here, I spoke with long-time Darien resident Jack Amason, who was named the Grand Marshall of this year’s Blessing of the Fleet festival.

Blessing of the Fleet Grand Marshal a Strong Supporter of Area Shrimp Industry

By Anna Hall

Jack Amason isn’t a fisherman or a shrimper or even a crabber. He has never made his living working from a boat. Nonetheless, he has been tagged as this year’s Grand Marshal of the Blessing of the Fleet festival. And with good reason.

For decades, Amason has supplied area shrimpers and commercial fisherman with one vital element: ice. One large block at a time, Amason and his Sea Garden’s Seafood operation have supplied area shrimpers and fishermen with the critical cooling element to keep their catch fresh and their products marketable under the often cruel Georgia heat.

“Nope, I’ve never been a commercial fisherman. So why did they pick me as grand marshal?” Amason said. “Ah, who knows? I’ve been around for a while. Maybe they just ran out of old folks. But in any case, it sure is a big honor, a real point of pride for me.”

Amason never thought he would end up in the ice-supply industry. It was an operation his father launched more than five decades ago, when the area shrimping business was booming and rumors had spread throughout the southeast that a man could make a lot of money on Georgia’s coast with anything dealing in fishing endeavors.

Amason’s father packed up their family in 1945, moving the crew from Atlanta to Cedar Point, when in 1946, he opened Sea Gardens Seafood and began selling block ice to shrimpers and fishermen. Amason was involved with his father’s business from the get-go, doing whatever was needed to keep the business in check.

Eventually, he graduated from high school, then headed to Georgia Tech to earn a mechanical engineering degree.

“I had enough of boats by then,” Amason said. “I had to go somewhere else, see other things. I said I was going to move to New York, but then I went and saw all that snow, and thought, ‘Oh, no way. I’m an old country boy.’”

Amason spent several years in the mechanical field, before eventually answering his father’s call to come home and work at Sea Gardens in the late 1960s. When he returned, he took over the business in the midst of major societal and economic changes. Life in the seafood industry wasn’t as easy as it had been decades prior, and the government was stepping in with regulations, rules and red tape that put new pressures on shrimpers and fishers, Amazon said.

While adapting to new industry methods wasn’t easy, it was necessary and Amason stepped up to the plate. When rules came along with which he did not agree, he stood up and tried to protect his and his comrades’ way of life. He joined councils and advisory committees, letting government regulators know how their reach was affecting his industry. For better or for worse, he was not going to sit back and just let unjust changes occur, not under his watch.

Today, Amason can list- by date- the many battles he has fought to preserve the shrimpers’ way of life. He can chronologically chart the meetings, workshops and conventions through which he has put his foot down for the betterment of the shrimping and fishing industry. He has charts, graphs and dated documents to display his hours of homework, research and drive for bringing the industry back to its heyday. But, he admits, high fuel costs, over-fished areas of the coast, compounding government regulations and imported shrimp, have all created a harsh landscape for modern shrimpers.

“In 1979, we had 1,471 trawlers in these waters,” Amason said. “In 2013, we had 246 trawlers. That says a lot. It’s hard for shrimpers out there today. Today’s shrimpers, they are survivors. Pure and simple.”

Despite the declined industry, Amason continues to stand up for shrimpers, and has multiple awards for his hard work and battlefield cries. But, Amason is quick to be humble, noting that while shrimpers may be trekking an uphill battle, their dedication to their industry has not gone unnoticed, or completely unsupported. The Wild Georgia Shrimp Association and other industry organizations are stepping up as loud cheerleaders, promoting the coastal shrimping industry and protecting what does remain.

“There are those shrimpers who are making it work, who have been in the business for generations,” Amason said. “They have a passion that will not fade despite hardship. There are those people who will pass this down to their sons and families, who are in this as a livelihood and as a love for the water.”

Events like the Blessing of the Fleet weekend mark those shrimpers who are invested in the industry, and those individuals like Amason who have a devotion to seeing it continue, he said. Every year, Amason attends the weekend festival, particularly the Sunday ceremony when the vessels are blessed by area clergy.

Those two things- shrimping and the spirit of the Almighty- are two of the most major investments he has made in 75 years of life, he said. So much so that, for years, he put a SeaGarden advertisement in the Blessing of the Fleet brochure, quoting a Bible verse to encourage his peers in the business, several of which he still has today.

“I go to the Blessing every year,” Amason said. “For some people, it’s about the show. But there are those who take it to heart and really do believe in the event as a spiritual rite. I look forward to that every year, to see the whole community come together like that and support our shrimpers. It’s truly a time for us all to remember just how blessed we really are.”

– Originally Published in The Darien News, April 10, 2014

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