The U.S. Coast Guard said Tuesday that the search had been suspended for four people missing from a Sitka fishing boat in what could be the deadliest incident in Alaska’s charter fishing industry in decades.
The body of one person had already been recovered.
Much is still unknown about the circumstances of the wreck: The boat, a 30-foot, aluminum-hulled fishing vessel, left Sitka on Sunday for a fishing trip with five people aboard. The Kingfisher Charters vessel was last seen in the afternoon near Cape Edgecumbe, at the southwest point of Kruzof Island and near the open ocean of the Gulf of Alaska, according to the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard was notified at 7 p.m. that the boat was overdue, and launched a search that located the vessel between Shoals Point, at the southeastern tip of Kruzof Island, and Low Island, closer to Sitka. The boat was “half-submerged” when found.
A man was found dead in the water less than 100 yards from the boat, said Petty Officer Ian Gray. There was no obvious indication of damage to the 30-foot aluminum fishing boat, Gray said.
None of the people on the fishing trip had been publicly identified by authorities as of Tuesday afternoon.
Searchers spent a little more than 24 hours searching the area by air and sea for the four other missing passengers, with a Coast Guard helicopter, a C-130 plane and boats that included a Coast Guard cutter and private vessels from Sitka. The search covered about 825 square miles over 20 hours, according to Gray.
It was called off at sunset on Monday night, officials said.
“Despite our best efforts and those of several partner agencies, we were not able to find the four remaining individuals,” Capt. Darwin Jensen of the Coast Guard said in a statement. “Suspending a search is never an easy decision. We extend our deepest sympathy to the loved ones during this difficult time.”
A Coast Guard investigation into the incident was in early stages Tuesday.
It was still unclear what happened to send the passengers of the boat overboard, though weather at the time was rough, with 6- to 10-foot seas. The four missing people are presumed dead based on the time elapsed between when the boat may have gone down, and water temperatures in the area.
Fatal incidents involving fishing charters are far less common than deaths aboard commercial fishing vessels, said Lanning Trueb, an Anchorage maritime attorney who has practiced in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest since 1989.
“Deaths on fishing charter vessels, in my experience, are rare,” he said. “That’s probably because most charter boats are fishing near to shore and so they can get out of the weather.”
Trueb said he didn’t know of any incident in which more than five people died on a fishing charter in Alaska, though some such incidents have happened in Washington and Oregon, including the wreck of the Taki-Tooo. In 2003, the charter boat capsized crossing the Tillamook Bay bar on the Oregon coast, killing 11 people.
In Alaska, a father and son from Oregon died when their charter boat capsized in the cold waters of Glacier Bay in 2016.
The five-passenger, 30-foot aluminum hulled boat found wrecked near Sitka on Sunday was what’s known as a “six-pack vessel,” which means a boat can carry six or fewer passengers for hire without undergoing yearly Coast Guard in-person inspections. Six-pack vessels are still required to have a licensed crew member aboard, as well as a personal flotation device for each person on the boat.
Most Alaska fishing charter boats are six-pack vessels, said Senior Chief Petty Officer Drayton Parker, who works in vessel safety for the Coast Guard.
“It’s a big financial and administrative lift to get the boat inspected, to carry that seventh passenger,” he said. “So people stay under six for that reason.”
The boat had an emergency beacon onboard — not a requirement for charter fishing boats of that size and passenger capacity — but it didn’t appear to have been used, according to the Coast Guard. The boat involved in the accident was owned by a subcontractor for Kingfisher Charters and Lodge, a Sitka-based outfit that has been operating for decades, Parker said.
Kingfisher Charters did not respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday.
Forrest Braden, the executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, a trade group of charter fishing and lodge operators, said the owner of Kingfisher Charters had a reputation as a meticulous operator.
“I couldn’t see him or their business not dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s,” Braden said.
Other Southeast charter operators want to know what led to the deadly accident.
“We know that safety compliance is the first priority for Southeast businesses and guides and are waiting to understand what factors might have led to this very unfortunate incident,” he said.
And in the small world of charter fishing guides and operators, the day marks a tragedy that will be long remembered, he said.
“It’s just a really difficult time,” Braden said. “It’s a sad day for everybody.”
[This story has been updated with additional information.]