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Most set netter fatalities happen when not wearing life jackets in open skiffs

Sisters Dora Andrew Ihrke and Dianne Ross stay cozy in their homemade salmon hats while set netting on Kanakanak beach.
Sisters Dora Andrew Ihrke and Dianne Ross stay cozy in their homemade salmon hats while set netting on Kanakanak beach.

Set netter lunch and learn in Dillingham focuses on finding wearable PFDs.

Bristol Bay fishing is known to be fast paced. Boats field intense, rapidly changing weather. For set netters, that means navigating changing conditions in open skiffs — often with too little sleep, nets that pose a tripping hazard, and stormy weather. In other words, set netting can be dangerous.

Ahead of the season, a crew safety course offered by the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, or AMSEA highlighted setnetter safety for attendees in Dillingham this past week.

Many driftnet boats are still waiting for the green light to start fishing. But set netters are already checking their nets at Kanaknak Beach in Dillingham.

Dora Andrew Ihrke is picking fish from her net, side by side with her sister Diane Ross. They grew up in Aleknagek and are back in town to visit family and for fishing. They took a break to chat about safety.

“So we always look out to make sure there's no bears around. If we're in a boat, and we have to wear life jackets,” Andrew Ihrke said.

Down the beach, setnetters John and Courtney Sidik said they were just talking about life jackets: They just purchased new inflatable PFDs for the season.

“They've got like a little trigger that you pull to inflate them. So I've been spending a good chunk of today trying to find out how to make sure that doesn't get stuck in the net,” John Sidik said.

Leann Cyr is the director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association or AMSEA. She spoke at a recent Lunch and Learn event on safety for set netters at the University of Alaska Bristol Bay campus. She says reviewing data shows two thirds of commercial fishing fatalities in Alaska actually occurred in open skiffs, not in drift boats.

Another trend she noticed: In most of the deaths she reviewed, the victims were not wearing their PFDs.

“And there's a lot of capsizes. There's falls overboard. Where, you know, you read the story of what happened. And it definitely gives you the impression that, you know, they would have maybe had a chance of surviving had they been wearing a life jacket,” Cyr said.

Cyr is developing an in-depth safety training specifically for set netters. She has been gathering community input from around the state, including Dillingham, and the training should be available next year. Life jackets are a big theme.

Dee Bakar, a long-time set netter out at Coffee Point was also at the Lunch and Learn this week. He says he got serious about life jackets after a close call years ago.

“The anchor had pulled and the boat had swung out into deeper water. And so when I went in, I immediately touched bottom at just about my chin level. …and the boat was still moving out. But nobody knew this. Nobody noticed it,” Bakar said. 

He says he was wearing a life jacket, but he got an unpleasant surprise.

“I had my life jacket loose fitting, so it wasn't effective. And it was floating up and I was floating down or sinking in it. And the buckles. Also because it was on the outside of my ringer it got hung up in the web,” Bakar said.

After that, Dee says he made some changes. First, he found a life jacket he knew he would wear.

“It has a rolled collar that it's bluer and, and it's very comfortable. It keeps me nice and warm…it's really comfortable when it's cold and windy and rainy,” Bakar said.

Then, he customized it.

“I put a crotch strap on mine that goes from the back under my crotch and snaps in. And that keeps it from floating up. So it keeps you floating up rather than a lifejacket just floating on the surface and you sink down in it,” Bakar said.

That adjustment came in handy the next time Dee went overboard.

“I had my life jacket on so I was able to pull myself around and I was too exhausted to get back in,” Bakar said.

Dee says, Thankfully, a nearby tender spotted him.

“And so they came around and picked me up. Two guys picked me up and threw me in the boat and I went right into the tote with the fish. But I was really happy,” Bakar said.

According to safety trainer Leann Cyr, lifejackets make that kind of positive outcome possible. She says they are especially important in Bristol Bay’s cold water.

“The way that your body responds to that, instantaneously is gasping. And many people drown immediately, when they aspirate water. So if you are wearing a life jacket, you can survive that, that stage of cold water immersion,” Cyr said.

If you are still in cold water after five or ten minutes, Cyr said, you will start to lose your strength. Your muscles won’t work as well as you want them to.

“So once again, you need a life jacket to survive that stage or to increase your survival. So and then, you know, to be rescued you have such a greater chance of survival if you're wearing a life jacket,” Cyr said.

She says wearability is key. Different pdfs have pros and cons, but the most important thing is that you wear one consistently—even if it’s not one of the coast guard approved models that some communities are required to keep on board.

“If it's not comfortable, or if you feel like it's dangerous or in your way, you're not going to wear it. …the best PFD is the one you'll actually wear,” Cyr said.

To help with that, the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association or AMSEA, is offering a $95 rebate for lifejackets. That’s for anyone who attends one of their safety training this year.

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Meg Duff is a fisheries reporter for KDLG's Bristol Bay Fisheries Report. She is also a freelance journalist, writing and making audio stories for publications like Scientific American, MIT Technology Review, Outside, Slate and Yale Climate Connections. Meg has a master's in journalism from New York University.