‘I just wish I had more time’: Friends, family remember fisherman killed in Bristol Bay accident

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Fisherman Corwin Wheeler, 21, died in a Kvichak Bay gear entanglement on Friday, July 5, 2024. (Courtesy Jeff Rowe)

Fishermen in Bristol Bay are mourning one of their own who died Friday during the sockeye salmon gillnet fishery. Alaska State Troopers said in an online dispatch that Corwin Wheeler, 21, became tangled in gear and fell overboard.

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

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

Wilder said 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 said there was no wrongdoing by anyone. He said that it was a normal day and that the crew was well rested.

Wheeler’s father, Jeff Rowe, spoke with KDLG. He said Wheeler was a wonderful kid and that 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 said that Wheeler 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 said 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 10 commercial fishing deaths involve gear entanglement. This was the first commercial fishing death on the water in Bristol Bay since 2021.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the vessel, the F/V Anny Joy.

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