Julie and Gig Decker met fishing after Julie journeyed to Alaska between semesters at Northwestern University outside of Chicago. They built their lives together in Wrangell, fishing and advocating for fisheries and seafood. They raised their children, Sig and Helen, gillnetting on the F/V McCrea every summer. So when the time came, they proudly sent their kids off seining with Bob Thorstenson Jr. to fish the Alaska summer salmon season and help pay for college.
With the rest of their crew, Helen and Sig Decker, 19 and 21, were docked in Petersburg on Monday night while Thorstenson, who runs the seiners Vigilant and Magnus Martens out of Petersburg, tried to resolve some engine troubles. They had just wrapped a salmon opener in some of the roughest weather he'd ever seen, Thorstenson told Alaska Public Radio.
Along with fellow crew member Ian Martin, 29, and another friend, Sig and Helen set off for Blind Slough, off the southeast side of Mitkof Island, about 25 miles from Petersburg.
When they didn't return by Tuesday morning, their friends began to search for them and put out a call to authorities. Alaska Wildlife Troopers and Dave Berg of the Petersburg Volunteer Fire Department found the wreckage of the SUV they had been traveling in and confirmed that all four passengers had died.
“We noticed some tire tracks on the road, some skid marks, not very many though,” Berg told Alaska Public Radio. “It looked like the driver may have tried to correct... too much around the turn and lost control of the vehicle. It went off the road and went approximately 200 feet into the trees alongside the road, along the length of the road but down the steep embankment.”
Fishing communities are no strangers to loss, especially in Alaska. When you wish your children a safe and healthy season in the midst of a pandemic, you can catalog all the words of wisdom you've imparted, make a mental list of the safety gear designed to mitigate the inherent risk of the commercial fishing life on top of new practices for covid-safe off-loading, and trust that they are in good hands with a highliner.
But fishermen are still fishermen when they leave the dock. And Sig and Helen are still the children of two wonderful people who represent this industry in good faith every day.
The United Fishermen of Alaska, along with friends of the Decker family, have initiated a GoFundMe to help cover unexpected expenses. The rest will go to finalizing the Wrangell Fishermen's Memorial. Sig and Helen's names will be the first to grace their hometown memorial. Additional funds will be raised to start a Memorial Scholarship Fund in honor of Helen and Sig, who were both accomplished athletes and students.
Julie Decker is the executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, chairwoman of the Alaska Mariculture Task Force, a longtime assemblywoman for the city and borough of Wrangell, and a leader in the promotion and advancement of mariculture in Alaska. Gig Decker is a commercial fisherman, diver and hobbyist historian. They are both contributors to National Fisherman and Pacific Marine Expo.