The presumed deaths of the captain and two others aboard the 44-foot Sea Tractor bring to nine the number of commercial fishermen based in Cape May who have died at sea this year.
Boats, planes and helicopters began searching the storm-tossed since shortly after the boat went down around 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in treacherous weather due in part to the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida.
There are no plans to resume searching Friday morning, when conditions are expected to be even worse, a Coast Guard spokeswoman said. Seas were topping 20 feet in the search area, with winds gusting to 55 mph Thursday.
"This is nine guys now; this is really hitting home, and it hurts," said Bruce Barto, who knew the Sea Tractor crew for 22 years through his marine supply business and counted them among his customers and friends.
"These guys were like family. Everyone knew them well and loved them."
Missing and presumed lost are Kenneth Rose Jr., 49, the captain of the Sea Tractor; his 75-year-old father, Kenneth Sr., and crew member Larry Forrest, 55. Friends and co-workers said all three are from North Carolina, but the Coast Guard could not immediately confirm their home addresses Thursday.
The loss of the Sea Tractor comes eight months after the Lady Mary - another North Carolina-based boat that operated out of Cape May - sank in March, killing six of the seven crew members on board. A joint Coast Guard-National Transportation Safety Board investigation is ongoing to try to determine the cause of that sinking. The boat owner, Royal Smith Sr., who lost two sons and a brother in the disaster, believes the Lady Mary was struck by another vessel that then left the area.
There were no immediate theories as to what caused the Sea Tractor to sink.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Crystalynn Kneen said search teams covered 387 square miles in poor visibility before suspending the search at 5:02 p.m. Thursday.
Barto and John Cole, general manager of a fishermen's cooperative in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., where the Sea Tractor sold its catch twice in the past year, both said they believed the Sea Tractor was fishing for fluke during an 11-day season that ended at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
"They were probably on their way home when the incident occurred," Cole said.
Nearly a dozen commercial fishermen interviewed up and down New Jersey's coast said they believe pressure to catch the last possible load of fish before the season ended might have played a role in the disaster.
"It's a shame they were out there," Barto said. "But the way the regulations are set up, they force you to either go out and get a paycheck, or don't go out."