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Fort Bragg fishing community mourning loss of missing fisherman presumed dead

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The Fort Bragg fishing community grieved Monday that one of their own remained lost at sea after a fishing boat overturned Saturday in rough waters off the Sonoma Coast, sending the man still missing and three others into the ocean.

The three fishermen and an observer were on the Miss Hailee trawling Saturday afternoon for cod and other fish. About 30 miles northwest of Bodega Bay, a large wave hit the 54-foot commercial fishing boat, pushing it over, according to the Coast Guard. About 90 minutes later, two men and a woman were pulled from the water by a Coast Guard helicopter. A fourth person wasn’t found and is presumed dead after a search for him was suspended Sunday afternoon.

The boat is owned by the Kelley family, a longtime Fort Bragg family well known in the fishing community there, according to multiple people in the industry.

Fishing is a cornerstone of Fort Bragg’s history — the Noyo Harbor its heart — and fishermen know each other, often like family.

Sadness hung heavy over the Mendocino coast town Monday, said Michelle Norvell, a Noyo Harbor commisioner who also runs the Fort Bragg Groundfish Conservation Trust, a nonprofit agency supporting fishermen and the local industry.

“It’s hard on the town. Even more so in the fishing community. We all know each other. We all work together,” said Norvell. She knows two of the crew and said her agency has worked with the Miss Hailee and the Kelley family.

“The loss of one person affects us all pretty deeply,” she said. “The young man, he was well loved by many and was a good friend of the Kelleys.”

The four on the Miss Hailee on Saturday were off the Sonoma Coast, the captain and two crew members dragging nets to catch a variety of fish including rock and ling cod, sand dabs and petrale sole.

The woman with the crew was there to observe — as part of a federal mandate for groundfish accountability that requires an observer on board for every such fishing trip.

After the boat capsized Saturday, a distress signal from the vessel went out about 5:30 p.m., launching Coast Guard efforts to reach the boat by radio and then in a search, Seaman Ryan Estrada of the Coast Guard’s district public affairs office said Monday.

An airplane, helicopter and two patrol boats responded and about 6:50 p.m. rescuers in the helicopter found the three and lifted them to safety amid rough seas and fog.

The capsized boat already had started to sink, and rescuers found the three people relatively close to debris in the area, Estrada said.

Two of them were in pretty good shape when rescuers found them because they were wearing dry suits, but Estrada said the third didn’t have a suit on and so was a little more hypothermic than the others.

The two patrol boat crews continued searching through the night for the missing man. In all, the effort covered 386 square miles.

The fisherman had been wearing a life vest, but it wasn’t known if he had any other protective gear for the cold water. Estrada on Monday declined to identify the man.

The loss also reverberated in Sonoma County’s fishing community.

“It shakes us all up when it happens,” said Tony Anello, owner of Bodega Bay’s Spud Point Crab Co. and a veteran Bodega Bay crabber. “It happens from time to time in this business. It’s a very dangerous business. Everyone on the boat has got to be right up to snuff.”

In Fort Bragg, Norvell acknowledged the dangers of the job.

“I think everybody knows it’s a risk. They just take the utmost care and safety and precautions,” said Norvell. “There are unforeseen challenges, anything can happen on the Pacific Ocean.”

Staff Writer Chantelle Lee contributed to this report.

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