Alaska’s rate of drownings, highest in nation, changed little in 6 years, state report says

a no-lifeguard sign
A sign seen on Thursday in Anchorage’s Jewel Lake, a popular summer swimming site, warns that there are no lifeguards on duty that day. Alaska’s rate of drowning deaths continues to be high, a new state report says. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska has the nation’s highest rate of drowning deaths, and the rate was consistently high over the past six years, according to a new state report.

A Division of Public Health epidemiology bulletin released on Wednesday examines drowning deaths from 2016 to 2021 and found some patterns and common factors. The vast majority were unrelated to work, even though drowning is a well-recognized commercial fishing hazard. Other common factors were failure to use personal flotation devices, sometimes called PFDs, and rural locations.

Alaska has some inherent characteristics that increase drowning risks, experts say. Those include a reliance on boats for basic transportation, low temperatures that can kill even strong swimmers, extreme weather and remoteness that can hamper rescue efforts.

“It’s a hazardous environment. The water’s cold,” said Deborah Hull-Jilly, injury surveillance program manager for the division’s epidemiology section and a coauthor of the recent bulletins.

Some recent drownings occurred amid those hazardous Alaska conditions. Three people were found dead and two others were missing as of Thursday after a charter fishing vessel sank in rough seas near Sitka last weekend. A week earlier, a 20-year-old man drowned after he became stuck near Hope in the notoriously treacherous Turnagain Arm mudflats.  

Aside from boat travel, snowmachine and all-terrain vehicle travel can also present drowning risks. There have been cases where snowmachine riders fell through the ice, Hull-Jilly noted, and some people engage in risky behavior by skipping their snowmachines over the surface of open water. “They’re going without a life jacket or a PFD, and they don’t know how to swim,” she said.

Of the 342 drownings in Alaska from 2016 to 2021, 85% occurred in recreational or other non-work activities.

Among those that occurred in boating accidents from 2016 to 2018, whether recreational or for subsistence food-gathering, 75% of the victims were not wearing personal floatation devices. That rate increased to 88% in the subsequent three-year period.

The recreational boating statistics contrast with those in commercial fishing, where fatality rates have decreased substantially in recent years through enhanced safety measures.

Another frequent factor contributing to Alaska drownings is intoxication. For example, 28 people died from drowning that occurred in bathtubs or hot tubs. In two-thirds of those deaths, drug or alcohol use was implicated, according to the bulletin.

Drowning rates were highest in Southwest Alaska and northern Alaska, according to the data.

a life jacket borrowing station
A kids’ lifejacket loaner station is seen on Thursday at Jewel Lake Park in Anchorage. Such stations with lifejackets that swimmers and boaters can borrow have been set up around the state under the Kids Don’t Float program operated by the Alaska Office of Boating Safety. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The median age of drowning victims was 45, and 83% of victims were male over the six-year period.

Twenty children 14 years old and younger died in drownings over the six years, and a quarter of the victims who were younger than 9 had been unattended by any adult leading up to those tragedies, according to the bulletin.

Amid the sobering statistics, there are some encouraging signs of improvements, said Annie Grenier, education coordinator for Alaska’s Office of Boating Safety.

She pointed to data compiled by the U.S. Coast Guard about lifejacket use by recreational boaters. The most recent publicly available report from the Coast Guard that compares states, issued in 2019, showed Alaskans rank near the top in use, both among adults and teenagers.

Success among youth could be a result of years of education, Grenier said. Over the school year, the office’s education team taught 17,000 students about water safety, including the use of personal-floatation devices. Similar numbers of students were taught in each of the past 10 years, she said.

“Some of these kids are hearing the message six times by the time they get out of elementary school,” she said.

There are signs of progress among adults, too, she said. Even though Alaska is one of the few states that does not require operators of motorized boats to take boating-safety classes, increasing numbers of Alaskans are taking those classes voluntarily, she said.

In another adult-focused outreach effort, the Office of Boating Safety is working with Alaska breweries and distilleries to spread a safety message in advance of the Fourth of July holiday. The campaign, focused on reducing use of alcohol on boats, is called “Save it for the Shore.”

While drowning is a year-round hazard in Alaska, early summer is an important time to spread the safety message, Hull-Jilly said.

“It’s the start of the season and the whole idea is to be safe, think smart,” she said. “Bring back the happy memories of recreating and playing in the water and not turn it into a tragedy.”

Correction: This article originally misidentified the year of the most recent publicly available report from the Coast Guard that compares states. It was issued in 2019.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.

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