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Image: Phil Harris of "Deadliest Catch"
Discovery Channel
Phil Harris started working on fishing boats at age 7 and started work 10 years later on a crab boat. When he turned 21, he ran a fishing vessel out of Seattle, making him one of the youngest to captain a vessel in the Bering Sea.
updated 2/11/2010 11:36:56 PM ET 2010-02-12T04:36:56

A crab boat captain who dodged danger for decades in the Bering Sea succumbed to a more common American ailment.

Phil Harris, 53, made famous on a Discovery Channel reality show, the "Deadliest Catch," died Tuesday. Harris suffered a stroke last month at a remote Alaska port and was flown to Anchorage for treatment.

Family members had reported he was making progress. His sons, Josh and Jake Harris, who accompanied their father on fishing trips aboard the Cornelia Marie, released a statement that Harris had always been a fighter and continued to be until the end.

Phil Harris acknowledged that steering a boat into some of the planet's most hostile waters was not for everyone.

"You've got to be a little bit twisted to do this job," he said on the eve of one departure.

The raspy-voiced skipper, often filmed with a cigarette in hand, suffered cracked or broken ribs in the show's fourth season when a storm tossed him out of bed and onto the sharp table corner.

He left the Cornelia Marie for treatment and was recorded recuperating in Seattle, spitting up blood, the result of a blood clot that had passed through his heart. He wistfully noted he might have to find something else to do.

"The bad part of it is, I don't know if my fishing career is over, and that's going to be a devastating thing for me if it is," he said on camera.

Harris was back on the Cornelia Marie last month when he suffered a stroke Jan. 29 in port at St. Paul Island, the largest of the five islands in the Pribilofs, 300 miles off Alaska's west coast and 750 miles west of Anchorage.

Commercial fishing statistically remains the most hazardous occupation in America, said Jerry Dzugan, director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association and a former halibut and salmon fisherman in Alaska's Panhandle.

An average of 11 fishermen in Alaska waters have been lost annually the last five years, he said. However, that's a fraction of the 36 to 40 lost annually before passage of revised federal safety laws.

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"The safety culture has changed in commercial fishing the last 20 years to a profound degree as the result of losses and as a result of regulations and as a result of fishermen seeing that required safety equipment works," he said.

About the same proportion of boats now sink, but most of the crew survive. Last year, nine fishermen died, said Jennifer Lincoln of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Heath. Eight were washed overboard and just one was a crabber, a crewman who got tangled in a line.

In the 1990s, an average of eight lives were lost annually in the crab fleet, most when vessels sank.

Just one crab boat has gone down since the Coast Guard, working with fishermen, instituted dockside safety and stability checks in 1999 to prevent overloading, which causes boats to be top heavy or unstable.

"By the time the 'Deadliest Catch' TV show was aired, crab fishing in the Bering Sea was no longer the deadliest catch," Dzugan said, adding that the deadliest U.S. fishery now is crab fishing off Oregon and Washington.

Dzugan did not minimize the danger faced by Harris and fellow crabbers who work through winter storms, often staying awake more than 24 hours straight, hoisting and emptying 850-pound crab "pots" and trying to stay upright on wet or icy decks without getting tangled in lines.

"It's amazing that you don't have more fatalities," he said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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