When Pietro Parravano was born 57 years ago, an aunt made him a baby blanket with his name and a boat — a symbol of St. Peter, his namesake — embroidered in blue. Three decades later, after acquiring a master’s degree in science and pursuing a teaching career, Parravano fulfilled his destiny and became a professional fisherman.
Parravano speaks almost with a sense of awe about his first experience fishing for wild salmon back in the early 1980s. “Something just opened up inside me,” he says. “It was just amazing to be out in nature like that, focused on a single task — catching fish.” He began talking to fishermen up and down the West Coast about entering the profession. They told him he was crazy, that fishing was a dying industry and a close-knit one that would be difficult to penetrate. But, Parravano says, it just “felt right.” He eventually bought and restored a 1940s-era wooden fishing boat, the Anne B., and joined the men and women who fish for wild salmon and trap Dungeness crab from the port at California’s Half Moon Bay.
Parravano did not come from a fishing family. His father, who was born and raised in Rome, came to the United States on a Fulbright Fellowship to Princeton, and wound up teaching science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. There, as a boy, Parravano was introduced to lake fishing, which he found boring. “When I was a kid, I was much happier taking a walk in the woods or climbing a tree,” he says. But the experience of ocean fishing changed his mind.
Twenty-five years into his career, Parravano still feels a spiritual connection to his calling. “I often say the ocean is my church,” he says. When fishing, he contemplates the mystery of the ocean, the mystery of the fish that come from the deep. But most of all, he says, “I will never let go of the incredible feeling that every fish I catch feeds people, nourishes them with a pure, delicious, high-quality food.” This mission, he says, grounds him.
Along with a sense of spirit, however, Parravano quickly began exploring the politics involved in modern-day fishing: overfishing, pollution, loss of jobs.
“When I got into it, there was no dialogue going on, just a lot of fingers being pointed in a big round of the blame game,” he says. He served on local, state, national, and international committees, trying to get researchers and people in the fishing industry to talk to each other, to figure out a sustainable future for the fisheries. He served as a commissioner on the prestigious Pew Oceans Commission, and in 2004 was awarded the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Environmental Hero Award.
Eventually, Parravano’s work came to the attention of the Apostleship of the Sea, a Vatican-directed organization dedicated since its inception in Scotland in the 1920s to helping mariners and seafarers of all kinds. The U.S. office is based in Port Arthur, Texas, and has long been ministering to crews on oil rigs and cruise ships, and to others who are at sea for months at a time. Parravano connected with the group after giving a presentation at a national conference about the need to support the fishing communities in the United States. “Fishermen are facing incredible stress — the actual or potential loss of their livelihoods, the breakups of established fishing communities and families,” says Parravano. “I just sounded the alarm. The Apostleship heard it.”
Parravano sees the role of the Apostolate of the Sea as providing support for families, training for new occupations, or whatever else is needed. Indeed, according to AOS-USA spokeswoman Doreen Badeaux, the group has been working with Vietnamese shrimpers — Catholic and Buddhist — in the Gulf Coast to help rebuild after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Parravano is also active in what he calls “food systems” issues, and is a member of the Roots of Change Stewardship Council, part of an organization devoted to sustainable food supplies. But despite all of his activism, what Parravano seems to enjoy most is making the connection between the people who eat fish and the people who catch them. He seems happiest when discussing selling fish at a local farmers’ market, where “people can ask how and where the fish was caught, and take that story back home and tell it at the table, and a link is forged.” He is rooted in his community, where his wife Joan works as an emergency room nurse.
“There are a lot of religious roots in fishing,” he says, citing the story of the loaves and the fishes, and the passage in Luke in which Jesus teaches from a boat in the ocean, then tells the disciples where to “dip their nets,” after which they take up an enormous amount of fish. Today, he says, the annual Blessing of the Fleet — held at the start of fishing seasons all over the world — brings legions of fishermen to the port.
“Today,” he says, “we may have some special gadgets and electronic devices, but we are still going out in a boat that floats for one purpose: to catch fish to feed people.
It’s a lot like what Peter did.” CD