How a return to old fishing traditions brought a community closer together
Fremantle’s crayfishing families are a hardy bunch. They are brave, beguiling, and have been the backbone of our Port City community for more than a century.
From the bays of Fishing Boat Harbour to the back blocks of Beaconsfield and beyond, the charm of a local battler selling his catch from the back of his boat has always captivated us.
Historically, western rock lobster fishers were able to sell some of their catch from the back of their boats to the public, however the introduction of the quota system in 2010 stopped direct boat sales constraining supply to the WA market. Over the last few years, the industry has been working with government on a more permanent solution to increase the availability and accessibility of western rock lobster for the local market. In early 2020, and as part of the COVID-19 response package, the industry recommended a simple mechanism for active fishers to use entitlement for local sales including from the Back of Boat (BoB), and the government agreed, allowing our fleet of 235 boats to land up to 200 lobsters each trip to sell directly to consumers.
The initiative shown by crayfishermen and the Western Rock Lobster Council has reconnected our community to its roots. BoB sales at Fishing Boat Harbour and Port Coogee have drawn hordes of hungry customers, and captivated crowds with the colour of the catch and the catchers alike. Every man and his dog, from Fremantle and afar, bought his Christmas season crayfish from BoB sales in recent years, and why wouldn’t he?
Showing courage in the face of adversity is not a new concept for Freo’s fishing families. Like their catches, their histories and stories are rich and raw.
Fremantle’s fishing families mostly originate from a few small towns in Italy – Falcone, Tonnarella, Milazzo, Molfetta, Capo D’Orlando – to name a few. Jamie Paratore is a third generation Fremantle crayfisherman (there were many generations before with family-members still fishing in Sicily), President of the WA Rock Lobster Fishers’ Federation, a busy husband and father, and a GP in his spare time (a fisherman who’s also a real Fremantle Doctor!).
“To this day, if you visit these towns, you can walk the foreshore early in the morning and watch the small fishing boats arrive with their fresh catch,” Jamie tells the Herald.
“You can see how the locals know each fisher by first name, how they spend the morning talking about the day’s catch, or local politics, and of course how the catch they buy will be cooked that very day. This interaction is a centuries-old tradition that happens right across Europe, and that, once again, is being mirrored here through the BoB sales.”
In Europe, artisan fishers are revered.
“The BoB initiative has reopened the gateway into the local community. It’s a human connection that happens when you can see your day’s efforts making someone else happy. For us that’s been the most rewarding part – the reconnection with community who we now know again on a first name basis,” Jamie tells the Herald.
The Camarda family has fished here since Francesco Camarda arrived in the 1890s; his son, Fedele, in 1906, as a 12-year-old.
That Fedele’s namesake, the great grandson of Francesco, still fishes today, and is also Deputy Chair of the Western Rock Lobster Council, and a recently elected Councillor at the City of Fremantle.
“My grandfather, Fedele, and my grandmother, Francesca, settled in Norfolk St and had nine children. Fishing played a prominent role in their community. In the early days, much of the catch was sold to locals,” this Fedele tells the Herald.
“Our boat the Neptune III had the privilege of being the first to sell crays off the back of the boat again, just like my great grandfather and his son did all those years ago.”
Fedele says BoB sales have been an incredibly positive experience for both the industry and the public.
“It’s been fantastic to provide the freshest product available and having that connection with the community allows us to meet so many people who appreciate what we do and are interested in our intergenerational stories. My brother Joe, my son James and I run the boat, and when my father Giacomo (Jim) is on board, we have three generations represented. Dad started in the early 1950s, so he has a lot of knowledge and many stories to tell.”
Anyone who’s ever lived, worked, or visited Fremantle, from the turn of the century to today, has been captivated by the character of these fishing families, and many others like them. Their charm, their colour, and their catch. There’s a growing desire from fishers and locals alike to expand the BoBs program to ensure this iconic local produce continues to be made available to us from the backs of local boats.
Commemorating those Lost At Sea
On 3 February 1916, 109 years ago last week, two fishing vessels left Port Dennison, near Dongara. One would never return. It tore a family, and a community extending across WA, apart. Henry James Money and his young son, Francis, were in one boat, with elder sons, Theodore and Albert, in another. By mid-afternoon, with the breeze freshening, Henry and Francis returned to port, leaving the others to do one more drift before heading home. They were never seen again. Every night before bed for the years after, their grieving mother, Annie, would light a hurricane lamp in the window of their house at the top of Point Leander in the hope it would guide her boys home. Henry and Annie Money were the great-grandparents of current Western Rock Lobster Council Chief Executive, Matt Taylor.
A committee formed in late 2021 through the initiative of crayfishermen including the late Ron Lo Presti (RIP), their families, and the WA Fishing Industry Council (Mr Lo Presti was the Council’s first Honorary Life Member), is planning to build a statue to recognise the hundreds of fisher men and women who lost their lives at sea.
Committee-member, Jamie Paratore, says their harrowing stories, like the one above, ignited the idea to build a statue – the Lady with the Lamp.
“We see the memorial as more than just bricks and mortar. It is in itself a storytelling process that will ultimately connect back to the wider community. More than 30 commercial fishers have lost their lives from Fremantle, Rottnest Island, and surrounds, and many hundreds more along our WA coast,” Jamie tells the Herald.
“We are asking the community to share any stories of loved ones lost at sea so we can ensure they are immortalised by this memorial.”
If you have a story, please contact WAFIC on 9432 7777 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tragedy on the Marlene Ann
One such story is close to this journalist’s own battered heart. It’s a tragic story that has affected my family, and extended family, and still does to this day.
Not a day goes by that 80-year-old Marlene Grljusich (nee Barbarich) doesn’t think of her late father, George, who was lost at sea off Jurien Bay with his uncle-in-law, Mate Parentich, on the 16th of February 1961.
Marlene is my step-mum. She was married to my late father, George, in 1963, before he married my mum, Judy, in 1975 – and again in 1998 – but that’s another story …
In between, Dad went back to Marlene, and she cared for my sister and I like we were her own daughters.
Marlene was only 19 when she lost her father, and the hurt was, and still is, deeper than any of us could imagine.
She cried when I told her the Lady with the Lamp memorial committee asked me to write about her story. Imagine the impact of losing your father at 19, on a boat named after you? Deep, indeed. Marlene says a memorial for fishers lost at sea would mean the world to her.
“I think it would be wonderful,” Marlene told me.
“Losing my father like that affected me so badly at a crucial time of my life. When it happened, it was a big shock as I remember he was away a lot, but he always returned. The last time it wasn’t to be.”
Through tears she tells me she still misses him.
“I was very close to him. He was a sweet and gentle man. My brother, Barry, was only 16 when dad drowned. We can’t imagine what dad and Uncle Mate went though.”
The history books say Mate, having finished crayfishing in Safety Bay for the season, joined George on his boat the Marlene Ann to fish off Jurien Bay. Tragically, they were hit by a breaker (a big swell in the water that turns over on itself) in the south passage and lost their lives. Mate, who had been in WA for 35 years, had not seen his family in that time, and was making plans to return to Croatia. The Parentichs continued fishing for 40 years. The Barabarichs would never fish again.
Sea Saints Help Homeless
Last Christmas, the WA Rock Lobster Fisher’s Federation, largely made up of the 30 or so crayfishing families who still call Fremantle Port home, supported the St. Patrick’s Community Support Centre’s Long Table Dinner.
Federation President, Jamie Paratore, says they’re dedicated to preserving and promoting the social and cultural integrity of the fishing fleet, and it made sense to support St Pat’s to look after the most vulnerable people on the very streets they call home.
The Long Table Dinner has grown to become one of the premier events on the City’s social calendar and to date has raised more than half a million dollars for the Support Centre.
St Pat’s Chief Executive, Michael Piu, said the event hit a new milestone in 2021, raising a record $150,000 to help people at risk of or experiencing homelessness.
“The Freo Long Table Dinner is a wonderful opportunity for St Pat’s to celebrate the people and businesses of Walyalup, Fremantle, and our joy and gratitude at being a part of such a generous and supportive community,” Mr Piu tells the Herald.
He says they are extremely grateful and fortunate to have had the Federation supply 130 fresh lobsters in 2021.
“Like many of the fishing families, St Pat’s has become a part of the fabric of Fremantle, and we are proud to share it with them, and all who have shaped our city into the vibrant and diverse community it is today. We greatly appreciate our relationship with the Fremantle fishing community and look forward to working with them again at the seventh Long Table Dinner in November.”
Blessing bigger than ever
According to John Minutillo, President of Fremantle’s Fishing Fleet Festival, the tradition of the Blessing of the Fleet began more than a century ago in Molfetta, when a statue of Our Lady, the Madonna, was carried from the church and placed onto local boats to bless them.
The ritual was to give fishers protection at sea, and bring them bountiful catches, and has been conducted in Fremantle since 1973.
“We celebrate the festival on the second last Sunday in October,” Mr Minutillo tells the Herald.
“We carry the statues from St Patricks Basilica to Fishing Boat Harbour where they are placed on the boats, and the whole procession is loaded onto the other boats. We go around the harbour three times and the archbishop will bless the fleet. Once that’s done, we start to make our way back to the church but stop at the Esplanade for fireworks.”
On the day, local fishers clamber to adorn the Madonna with gold.
“All the gold on the statues is from the families of the fishers and friends who donate it to Our Lady. The gold is only brought out on the day of the procession otherwise it is kept in the bank,” says Mr Minutillo.
There are fewer boats to bless these days, but fisher Jamie Paratore says this years’ Blessing felt bigger and better.
“We saw an outpouring of support as local fishers emerged from a series of COVID lock-downs. You just sensed the community craved a connection back to common elements and familiar roots,” Jamie tells the Herald.
“With the Blessing spanning back many decades, it’s a chance to reconnect with some sort of familiarity that we’ve all become accustomed to. For many of us, those memories from years ago keep us connected to who we are, and how we identify.”
Fedele Camarda remembers Blessings as a boy.
“I have fond memories of going with my family in the 70s and 80s,” Fedele tells the Herald.
“It’s a day for everyone, for those who come to reminisce, and those who are new to the experience.”
Fedele agrees people have become more connected with the industry because of BoB, breathing new life into the age-old Blessing tradition.
Fedele was honoured to carry the Madonna with the new Mayor of Fremantle, Hannah Fitzhardinge, on board Neptune III too.
“As someone who has had family in the industry, I have a deep appreciation for the contribution the industry makes, not only in providing opportunities to buy local product, but also to celebrate the history, meaning, and contribution of crayfishing in WA,” said Mayor Fitzhardinge.
Visit the Back of Boat Lobsters Facebook page for up-to-date information on back-of-boat sales, including dates, locations and contact details of the fishers who are participating.
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