If you go

What: Blessing of the Fleet & Seafood Festival

When: 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday

Where: Memorial Waterfront Park and Pier, Harry M. Hallman Jr. Boulevard, Mount Pleasant

Price: Free

more info: 884-8517 or www.townofmountpleasant.com

Commercial fishing and shrimping is not for the faint of heart or the faint of stomach. Shrimp boats frequently spend a week or more at sea, dodging bad weather, waves and plenty of potentially dangerous equipment as they brave the ocean to harvest its bounty.

Festival Parking

Limited free parking for Sunday’s Blessing of the Fleet is available at Memorial Waterfront Park. Two shuttle bus routes will be available, offering plenty of offsite parking. Park and ride from the following Mount Pleasant locations:

Former Baker/Miller Cadillac lot, 512 Johnnie Dodds Blvd.

James B. Edwards Elementary, 855 Von Kolnitz Road

East Cooper Medical Center, 2000 Hospital Drive (handicap-accessible bus stops at ECMC only)

Laing Middle School, 1560 Mathis Ferry Road

Moultrie Middle School/Farmers Market Pavilion, 645 Coleman Blvd.

Cheryll Woods-Flowers Sports Complex, 85 Patriots Point Blvd.

Charleston Harbor Resort, 20 Patriots Point Road (Pavilion lot only)

In the Bible, it was fishermen whom Jesus chose as his disciples. It’s no wonder that the tradition of staging a “blessing of the fleet” has its roots in the Mediterranean. From calling on God to bestow a bountiful catch to requesting safety for the fishermen, the blessing carries deep significance to the boats and their crews.

Immigrants to the East Coast of the U.S. brought the practice with them, and many ports and harbors host an annual blessing celebration, often complete with parades, feasts and pageants.

The Charleston area’s version began in the early ’80s, when the Magwood family, longtime shrimpers based on Shem Creek, decided that the area needed an event to match those that occur in places like Fernandina Beach, Fla., and Darien, Ga.

“Shrimping up and down the coast, I’d seen other places that had blessings, and I thought it was a good way to give something back to the community. We used the blessing to raise money for local groups like Meals on Wheels,” explains Wayne Magwood, a third-generation shrimper whose boat, “Winds of Fortune,” is a familiar site in Shem Creek.

But some of the motivation behind the blessing was to improve the image shrimpers carried in the public eye.

“It was partially to show that we’re not cussing sailors out there raping the ocean like people used to think we were,” said Magwood. “There was a bunch of bad publicity out there, and we wanted to show that we have a respectable livelihood.”

These days, shrimpers have an entirely different PR problem. Although most people have come to respect and treasure our local shrimping fleet — Shem Creek is arguably Charleston’s most photographed waterway — the shrimpers still face the challenge of persuading restaurants and consumers to pay a premium for their local product despite being drastically undercut by prices on imported farmed shrimp from Asia.

Amid the live music, abundant seafood and host of entertainment options at this weekend’s Blessing of the Fleet and Seafood Festival at Mount Pleasant’s Memorial Waterfront Park, there’s a dire underlying concern: Charleston’s shrimping and fishing fleet is ever dwindling, and without this event and the awareness it helps to raise, there soon could be no fleet to bless.

Prayers for shrimpers

At the peak in the ’90s, the Blessing of the Fleet included more than 30 fishing boats in the parade that sails through Charleston Harbor.

After a few informal years held at Patriots Point and on the Peninsula, the blessing became an official event sanctioned by the town of Mount Pleasant in 1987. The festivities were held at Alhambra Hall in the Old Village until the opening of Memorial Waterfront Park at the foot of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge allowed for expanded grounds and the opportunity for an even closer vantage point for spectators to the parade of boats.

“It’s a much more conducive place for a large event,” said Ann Magwood, the blessing’s founder and committee chair.

Sunday’s event begins at 11:30 a.m. To alleviate parking congestion, the town is offering free shuttle service from multiple schools and businesses around Mount Pleasant.

The day’s schedule begins with live music from the Southern rock band Southwood, which will perform at 11:30 a.m. and again at 1:45 p.m. They’re followed at 3 p.m. by longtime blessing stalwarts the East Coast Party Band, which will perform until 6 p.m. with a break for the shag and shrimp-eating contests at 4:20 p.m.

The Mount Pleasant Artists Guild and local crafters will be on hand throughout the day exhibiting their work, while ArtBuzz Kids will offer free craft projects for children.

The Center for Birds of Prey, Reptile Innovators and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources will have live animal educational displays.

At 12:45 p.m., the blessing procession will make its way to the end of the pier, with the boat parade commencing at 1 p.m.

For 10 years, the Rev. Len Williams, a retired Episcopal priest, has offered the blessing as the ships proceed past.

“The blessing recognizes the need for the Lord’s care for them while they’re out there shrimping because it’s a very dangerous occupation,” said Williams, who is also the chaplain for the International Seafarers Ministry of the Charleston Port and Seafarers’ Society, this year’s primary charitable beneficiary. The society provides services to sailors from around the world who work on the cargo ships docked at the local port.

“I’m there to pray for their protection and for a bountiful harvest so that they can begin their year asking for God’s blessings upon their venture,” Williams added.

Supporters unable to attend can listen to the blessing administered by Williams and Father John Parker of the Holy Ascension Orthodox Church live on the radio at 94.3 WSC FM.

The Blessing of the Fleet may be the largest event in the Charleston area with a religious undertone, and its one that the shrimpers appreciate. Each boat is individually blessed and prayed for during the ceremony.

“The shrimpers understand the meaning of the blessing itself,” said Magwood, citing the historical significance and ancient Roman and Greek roots. “They’re appreciative of the prayers for a good harvest and a safe return.”

A struggling industry

More than ever, the shrimpers still operating in Charleston need a good harvest to stay in business.

After initial optimism, 2012’s catch fell behind historic averages, forcing boats to burn more fuel traveling farther distances up and down the coast. It also meant less money is available for boat upkeep and repair, and left shrimpers like Wayne Magwood seeking side work in Texas during the spring offseason, when he’d normally be preparing his boat in Shem Creek.

“There’s no money left to get through the winter, and the boats are suffering and just rotting at the dock,” said Magwood, who recently lost the insurance plan he’d carried on “Winds of Fortune” for 10 years because he was unable to pay the bill. “It’s just sad. We’re all struggling.”

Part of the funds raised by the blessing will go toward a new nonprofit being organized by the shrimping community to help out fellow shrimpers who fall on hard times, from boat repair to medical bills. Although the money raised by the blessing always has gone back into Mount Pleasant charities, the industry is in such dire straits that the shrimpers themselves need help just to remain in business.

Fortunately, the blessing’s impact on promoting local seafood is far more significant than the funds it raises on the day of the event. Strong industry supporters like Gilligan’s Seafood Restaurant, which makes a public commitment to serve only local shrimp regardless of the price difference, are among the 11 seafood vendors on hand at the festival.

Magwood said he’s optimistic about this year’s catch, thanks to heavy rains in February, although the whole picture won’t be clear until the water reaches 70 degrees and shrimp start to head from the creeks back out to sea.

“I’ve heard some good reports from the crabbers that they’re finding a lot of molting shrimp upriver, so we’re just kind of waiting now to see what happens,” he said. “When there’s a lot of rain, historically, it’s meant that we have a good crop.”

Ann Magwood expects only eight to 10 boats to participate in this year’s blessing, and their decorations likely will be less elaborate than in years past. Still, the public turnout likely will continue to grow, with estimates ranging between 12,000 and 15,000.

Customer education and demand about the importance and health benefits of eating local, wild-caught shrimp is the remaining fleet’s biggest asset, and the blessing helps more than any other event to emphasize that.

“We don’t want Shem Creek to not have any shrimpers left,” said Magwood. “Just like with local farmers, anything that’s fresh is usually a better product, and in Charleston, you can find shrimp that were caught that morning if you really try. You can’t get fresher than that.”