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PFD Use Rare In Port

Greta Mart

A fisherman on a Dutch Harbor-based trawler died last week, but not while he was working out at sea. Divers found his body underneath the dock where his employer's boat is berthed. Police are still investigating, but it appears the crewman fell in the water unseen upon returning from a night out on the town.

While fishing the Bering Sea is no longer the deadliest job, there's no guarantee port will be any safer. Yet wearing a life jacket once the boat is docked is decidedly uncommon. 

The trawler named Margaret Lyn returned from a fishing trip to Dutch Harbor on April 10. The following night, 35-year-old Matthew Warn was out at the Norwegian Rat Saloon, drinking PBRs. 

In the morning, his vessel captain realized Warn was missing and started looking for him around town. But a hat belonging to the crewman was found on the dock.

"And that combined with some information officers obtained, from the captain, other crew, taxi drivers that they talked to, they put together that it was quite likely he had returned to the dock in the wee hours of the morning," Unalaska Deputy Police Chief Jennifer Shockley said.

Shockley says when the captain alerted police, the search was focused on the marina from the start.

Police brought in commercial divers, who recovered Warn's body from under Carl E. Moses Boat Harbor's B dock around 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

"This is the kind of tragedy we see about every two years. Sometimes we find people who are reported missing, sometimes we don't. Almost all the times that we have a situation like this - where somebody falls into the water in the night - we almost never have anybody who saw anything, which is part of the reason they end up this way," Shockley said.

Warn's father called to receive the news. Not much else is known about Warn other than he lived in Anchor Point, Homer and Fairbanks at various times in his life. He had been fishing on the Margaret Lyn for about a year.

Word of the fisherman's death spread quickly around the island and hit his friends and fellow crewmen hard.

"When you hear that it happened to somebody that's a fisherman but in that way, it's even worse, you know. Cause at least out there, you're putting your life for what you do everyday.   You make money, that's what you do, that's your life, you go out there and you risk it...somebody - like that - it's pretty sad," said fisherman Erik Valenzuela.

In his early 30s, Valenzuela says he has been crabbing out of Dutch Harbor for the past five years.

"It's happened to me, where I almost...I know it could have been an accident. I left the bar, you know, had a couple drinks. You don't even have to be drunk, I mean, it can just happen in the middle of the night," Valenzuela said. "You know, you step on a buoy or you try to cross, you're like oh, I'm good, I've been doing this for many years. I mean, it don't matter if you've been doing it for many years, all it takes is one little slip.

A bartender there at the Rat the night Warn died says he was not visibly intoxicated when he left the bar. She says Warn got into a taxi with another local and left.

The U.S. Coast Guard announced in October that over a recent yearlong period, not one Alaskan commercial fisherman had perished at sea while working. But between 2000 and 2009, 133 commercial fishermen died while working in Alaskan waters, says the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH. One third died from falls overboard.

"And not one of those guys was wearing a life jacket when he died," said NIOSH's Ted Teske. Last fall Teske was in Dutch Harbor to survey fishermen about their current use of life jackets. He says anecdotally, more crewmen in the Dutch Harbor fleet are wearing PFDs round the clock. The latest designs are in the form of suspenders, easy to work in and forget you're wearing.

But who wears one while docked? Matthew Warn did not.

"Certainly if he'd been wearing one, he would have had a much greater likelihood of survival. But the reality is that most of the people that work out here on the fishing boats, when they're in port and they're simply getting on and off their boats in order to go to the grocery story, go to a restaurant, go the bar, they're not wearing a PFD to do that," Deputy Chief Shockley said.

At this point in the investigation, police said, there's no reason to suspect Warn's death was other than an accident. His body was flown to Anchorage for an autopsy, and Shockley says it will be a few weeks until they know more information on the precise cause of death.

Greta Mart worked for KUCB in 2015 and 2016.
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