Drone scours half of WA coast in search of missing fisherman

Nonprofit drone pilot found vessel debris from Feb. 5 capsize, no sign of Bryson Fitch

A drone with a camera last weekend flew over 109 miles of Pacific coastline — from the mouth of the Columbia River to the Quinault Indian Reservation — but found no sign of Bryson Fitch, the missing crab fisherman who was lost at sea almost one month ago when his vessel capsized near Willapa Bay.

At the mouth of the bay Feb. 5, U.S. Coast Guard crews rescued two other crew members from a life raft of the foundered fishing vessel Ethel May, but Fitch couldn’t be located, and the Coast Guard called off the official search 24 hours later.

Since then, meticulous beachcombing efforts by the Willapa Bay community have discovered parts of the Ethel May, including the hull, stern, wheelhouse and other miscellaneous equipment, on beaches from Long Beach to Westport, but Fitch has yet to be found.

Drone images from the most recent search revealed similar pieces from the broken fishing vessel, but most had already been discovered, according to drone pilot John Jones.

Jones said he was contacted via Facebook and asked to conduct a search for Fitch, and he obliged. Six months ago, Jones founded a registered 501C3 nonprofit called Aloft Drift Search, which helps law enforcement and families locate missing people at no cost. The nonprofit is funded completely by donations, Jones said.

Jones, along with another crew member, arrived in Long Beach Friday morning, Feb. 24 to start the search. The search spanned three days.

“We take a systematic approach to it and preplan the flights,” Jones said. “We basically just hit play and the drone will fly them autonomously. It takes a picture every second so it doesn’t miss any area,” Jones said.

Those images usually show greater detail than viewing the live video during flights, Jones said.

“They did a very slow, methodical, in-depth search. I was really impressed,” said Commander Mike Parker of the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office, which supported the nonprofit with the search.

The Pacific County Sheriff’s Office has been assisting with the search since hours after the Ethel May went down in early February. A large part of its effort has involved a water-resistant drone that’s been able to examine areas hard to reach by foot.

Parker said the sheriff’s office will continue to assist with the search as time and resources allow.

While Jones’ drone effort didn’t find any physical items of significance, it did produce potentially valuable information, including debris maps and suggested areas for further searches. That information was first shared with Fitch’s family and then posted on Facebook.

Jones’ debris map shows a cluster of findings in the Tokeland area and on Leadbetter Point, as well as a few items up the beach to Westport and on the North Beach as well. Not all items were necessarily from the Ethel May.

After combing most of the beaches around Willapa Bay and Westport, community searchers have shared information in a Facebook group called “Bring Bryson Home,” which now has more than 4,000 members.

One of the many searchers is Daniella Bianca Knight of Naselle, who didn’t know Fitch personally, but whose ex-husband is a crab fisherman. Knight is an experienced hiker and has been able to explore some harder-to-reach areas like Leadbetter Point, the mouth of the Naselle River and miles-long walks along the shoreline of the bay.

Knight said she makes sure to “take things with me and take precautions so I’m not putting other rescue units in danger by putting myself in danger” during the search.

“For the most part I see a ton of people out with cars, binoculars,” Knight said in an interview. “You have boats out, the fishermen are out, captains are out looking while they’re working. We have people devoting their time and their own personal crafts.”

Crab fisherman Anthony Myhres, who fishes out of Tokeland, but didn’t know Fitch personally, said the search has distracted from his work at times over the last several weeks, keeping an eye on the shoreline and the water for signs of the missing fisherman.

The day after the Ethel May went down, with the Coast Guard flying above his vessel, Myhres said his own boat found a bag floating in the water, which he reported to officials, but it’s unclear if the bag was linked back to Fitch. The boat remained in the same area as the bag for an hour and a half that day but saw no sign of Fitch.

Since then, Myhres’ boat “has been really adamant and respectful about at least checking it out and confirming what things are,” Myhres said.

Even though debris has been concentrated in the Tokeland, Westport and Willapa Bay areas, beaches further north — which were “deserted with no earlier sign of foot traffic — could be “high probability areas,” Aloft Drone Search said in a Facebook post Wednesday.

Beaches north of Moclips on the Quinault Indian Reservation are closed to the public and require permission from the Quinault Indian Nation to access.

Nearly $70,000 has been raised since Feb. 7 through a verified GoFundMe for the family of Bryson Fitch — including his wife and three young children.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.