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21-year-old fisherman dies in gear entanglement in Bristol Bay

Corwin Wheeler, 21, of Wisconsin.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Rowe
Corwin Wheeler, 21, of Wisconsin.

Corwin Wheeler was remembered as an outgoing, committed friend.

A fisherman died in Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon gillnet fishery. 21-year-old Corwin Wheeler became tangled in gear and fell overboard on Friday, July 5.

Corwin Wheeler was working as a deckhand on the gillnetter Anny Joy in Kvichak Bay when he went overboard. Another deckhand, Jackson Wilder says Wheeler was throwing a hook to pull their net in when he got wrapped in the line.

Wilder says that the crew on deck tried to free Wheeler but he fell overboard. Wilder says it’s possible Wheeler was already unconscious when he fell.

Wilder says he jumped into the water wearing his full rain gear and boots and swam 20 feet to Wheeler. He tried to keep Wheeler’s head above water but he had to let go because he was tiring quickly. Neither Wilder nor Wheeler were wearing PFDs at the time, which is not uncommon when commercial fishing.

The crew pulled Wilder in with a line, then threw buoys and floats overboard so that if Wheeler regained consciousness he would have something to grab. They finally got Wheeler back on board when they pulled up the net. Wilder and the boat’s captain performed CPR until state troopers arrived to take over.

Wilder calls the death a freak accident and says there was no wrongdoing by anyone. He says that it was a normal day and that the crew was well rested.

Wheeler’s father, Jeff Rowe, spoke with KDLG. "He was a wonderful kid and he was becoming an incredible man. I just wish I had more time," Rowe said.

Wheeler’s mother, Leah Wheeler-Riggazi said her son will be greatly missed by his sister Zoe and all of his family, as well as by the friends and family that he created while fishing in Alaska and back home in Wisconsin.

He grew up in Trevor, Wisconsin, and then went to high school in Round Lake, Illinois. Wheeler had fished in Alaska for a number of years with Alaska Leader Fisheries, a hook and line company. According to his grandmother, Denise Rowe, this was his first year commercial fishing for sockeye salmon.

Rowe told KDLG that he first started fishing in Alaska when some friends went up. “And Corwin stayed out there. And he got into that. And he loved it,” Rowe said. “He made a lot of friends. They, you know, they had really good times. And he was happy.”

The family described Wheeler as intelligent, outgoing and a committed friend. “He was just so smart. And he had a quick wit and he made friends easy. It was like you knew him forever,” Rowe said.

Rowe says she hopes other crews out on the water will do what they can to stay safe this season. She hopes, “for these young guys, and family guys, to be careful. And watch out for one another.”

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, around one in ten commercial fishing deaths involve gear entanglement. This was the first commercial fishing death on the water in Bristol Bay since 2021.

(Correction July 8, 2024: The initial audio version of this story incorrectly stated that Wheeler was an only child. He was his father’s only child; he also has a sister. It also stated that the U.S. Coastguard responded; it was the state troopers that responded.)
(Correction July 9, 2024: An earlier version of the web story misstated the name of the vessel, which is the F/V Anny Joy.)

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.