Inside 'Deadliest Catch'


Thirty-foot (9-meter) waves are nothing new to the fishermen in the Bering Sea.
Thirty-foot (9-meter) waves are nothing new to the fishermen in the Bering Sea.
Discovery Channel

In the 2000 Wolfgang Peterson film "The Perfect Storm," actor George Clooney portrays Billy Tyne, captain of the ill-fated Andrea Gail fishing boat. The story comes from a real-life incident -- three storms meet in the Atlantic Ocean where the Andrea Gail and her crew are hauling in swordfish. All six crew members perish. The movie gave audiences an inside look at the extreme weather and lethal work that members of the commercial fishing industry endure. It also paved the way for a television show that, several years later, would put viewers on those boats.

"Deadliest Catch" debuted on The Discovery Channel in the spring of 2005. While "The Perfect Storm" followed sword fishermen in the Atlantic, "Deadliest Catch" takes viewers inside the lives of commercial crab fishermen on several different vessels off the Alaskan coast's Bering Sea. Airing in 150 countries, "Deadliest Catch" consistently draws up to 3 million viewers in the United States each week. The show was created by executive producer Thom Beers, of Los Angeles-based Original Productions. Beers dreamed up the idea after spending time aboard the fishing boat Fierce Allegiance while filming another Discovery show called "Extreme Alaska."

The show is titled "Deadliest Catch" because of the inherent peril of the Alaskan crab fishing industry. In the 1980s, the job was at its deadly peak, with an average of 37 fishermen perishing each year. New safety regulations and changes in how fishing permits are granted has led to a decline in the death toll. Still, between 2003 and 2008 an average of 11 fishermen per year died at sea [source: Pemberton].

Drowning accounts for 87 percent of those deaths -- generally man-overboard or sinking-boat scenarios. Deck injuries account for the other 13 percent [source: CDC]. On deck, you run the risk of being crushed by a swinging 800-pound (362-kilogram) crab cage called a pot. You could also get entangled in a winch, smashed by a hydraulic lift or sucked into a bait-cutting machine.

Sound brutal? That's because it is. In this article, we'll take you inside "The Deadliest Catch" and the grueling business of capturing crab. But first, let's learn how to translate all that crab fishermen vernacular.

 

Viewers' Guide

It's clear when you watch "Deadliest Catch" that these fishermen are the real deal. They work hard -- really hard -- and don't often have the time to explain everything that's happening.

When deckhands are spitting out jargon, it can be difficult to discern their meaning. Some of the terms they use are standard boat lingo: The aft is the rear end of the boat, or stern. The bow is the front of the boat. Starboard and port are, when you're facing forward, the right and left hand sides of the boat, respectively. Winward and leeward are toward and away from the wind, respectively. The head is the boat's bathroom, and the galley is its kitchen.

Other crab fishermen vocabulary is a little more unique to the biz. Here's a handy viewers' guide to help explain some of those terms used on the show:

  • Clean crab: crabs that are free of barnacles. They fetch the premium market price.
  • Cleaning house: getting rid of ice buildup on the boat
  • Deck: the main outdoor area of the boat where the fishing takes place. The workers are called deckhands and are led by the deck boss.
  • Engine room: the room below the deck and sleeping quarters that houses the boat's engine
  • F/V: short for fishing vessel. In print, F/V precedes the name of the boat.
  • Fleet: all the boats fishing for crab in the Bering Sea
  • Greenhorn: a new or inexperienced deckhand. Greenhorns have it rough and are heavily featured on the show.
  • Honey hole: a secret spot where a captain knows there are a lot of crab.
  • IFQs: individual fishing quotas, or the amount of crab each boat is allowed to catch per season
  • King and opilio (opie): the two varieties of crab that are fished on "Deadliest Catch." The boats can only catch these, per their permit. You might know opies better as snow crabs.
  • Pot: the crab cage. It weighs roughly 800 pounds (363 kilograms) empty and costs about $1,000 to replace.
  • Setting back: when a crab pot is pulled, emptied and dropped back in the same location
  • Wheelhouse: also called the bridge, it's the area where the captain drives the boat. There's a camera mounted here to record the captain's take on each situation.

Now, if you hear, "That greenhorn is so bad, he couldn't drop a pot in a honey hole," or, "If the guys don't clean house faster, it'll take weeks to get our quota," you'll know exactly what they're talking about.

Kick the greenhorn out of the wheelhouse and click ahead to the next page, where we'll take a look at the boats and crews featured in the show.

Boats and Captains

F/V Cornelia Marie navigates slowly through icy waters.
F/V Cornelia Marie navigates slowly through icy waters.
Discovery Channel

In 2011, the Discovery Channel will begin airing the seventh season of "Deadliest Catch." The following boats and captains will be featured:

F/V Cornelia Marie: Captain Phil Harris (deceased) -- Harris brought 30 years of fishing experience to the captain's chair of the 128-foot (39-meter) boat that's been featured in all seven seasons of the show. On the job he worked with his two sons, Josh and Jake, as deckhands. Harris was the co-owner of the Cornelia Marie for more than 17 years and was a tough, grizzled veteran of the sea. He lived in Seattle in the off-season and enjoyed riding his Harley and building custom-made birdhouses. Sadly, Captain Phil passed away after suffering a stroke during filming of the show's sixth season. Co-ownership of the Cornelia Marie now falls to Josh and Jake Harris, and Captain Derrick Ray is the vessel's new helmsman.

F/V Northwestern: Captain Sig Hansen -- The Northwestern is owned by the Hansen family. Sig is the captain, and his brothers Edgar and Norman work as deck boss and deckhand, respectively. The Northwestern has grown in size over the years to accommodate the increased loads boats are allowed. It was originally 108 feet long (32 meters) with a 156-pot capacity, but now sits at 125 feet (38 meters), and can carry the maximum 250-pot load. The Northwestern has also been in all seven seasons of "Deadliest Catch."

F/V Time Bandit: Captains Andy and Johnathan Hillstrand -- The brothers Hillstrand are arguably the liveliest and funniest captains on "Deadliest Catch." They split duties over the two crab seasons -- John takes the helm for king crab; Andy handles opilio. Brother Neal works aboard the Time Bandit as engineer, cook and relief captain. John's son Scott also works onboard as a deckhand. The boat was custom-built by the brothers from their father's design and boasts some amenities not often found on crab boats -- queen-sized beds, staterooms and a sauna. The Time Bandit has been featured all seven seasons.

F/V Wizard: Captain Keith Colburn -- The Wizard didn't start out as a fishing vessel. She was originally a U.S. Navy ship in World War II but was converted to a crab fishing boat in 1978. Colburn started as a deckhand in 1988 and worked his way up to captain in six short years. In 2005, he was able to buy the Wizard from its owners. Colburn works alongside his brother Monte, who serves as deckhand and relief skipper. The Wizard has appeared on "Deadliest Catch" since season three.

F/V Ramblin' Rose: Captain Elliot Neese -- This newcomer to the fleet is helmed by a 28-year-old captain and manned by an equally youthful crew. Make no mistake -- the crew has packed a lot of experience into their years. Registered in Juneau, Alaska, the Ramblin' Rose is 108 feet long (32 meters) and has 960 horsepower. Time will tell if the boat's success will ever eclipse its reputation as a floating party.

F/V Seabrooke: Captain Scott Campbell Jr. -- Another fleet newbie with youth at the wheel, the Seabrooke is out to prove itself. The boat is 109 feet long (33 meters) and 30 feet wide (9 meters). Captain "Junior" may seem overconfident for his 36 years, but he enters the crabbing season troubled over the loss of a deckhand at sea.

Drop those pots in a honey hole and click forward to learn how these men go about catching crabs.

Commercial Crab Fishing

A nice, full pot is pulled from the Bering Sea.
A nice, full pot is pulled from the Bering Sea.
Discovery Channel

So how do you catch a crab? The process is actually pretty simple in theory -- the execution is the tough part. At the season's start, the boats launch from Dutch Harbor in Unalaska, Alaska, plotting a course for a spot the captain thinks will be fruitful -- based largely on experience, weather conditions and good old-fashioned fisherman's instinct. Once they get to their destination, the deckhands drop crab pots one after another in a line covering dozens of miles, using colored buoys connected to the pot by a rope to mark the drop point.

A large pot is 7 by 8 feet (2.1 by 2.4 meters) and weighs about 800 pounds (362 kilograms) empty, so a manually operated crane is needed to lift and set them onto the flat hydraulic lift. The lift is a flat metal plate that uses hydraulics to hold and lift the heavy pots. A hinge on one side of the lift attaches to the side rail of the boat. Once the deckhands secure the pot onto the lift, they put bait in a bag in the center, typically codfish, and shut the trap door. The lift then tilts up, and the pot slides into the water and sinks to the ocean's floor. Next, a deckhand tosses the length of rope, called the shot, into the sea. That rope is attached to the pot and buoys and later is used to retrieve the trap. A final deckhand throws the buoys out last, and the pot is set. From there it rests, or soaks, for a period of 24 to 48 hours or more, collecting crabs that are hungry for some cod.

After the pots soak, the captain navigates the boat back to the beginning of the string of pots, and the crew begins to haul in the catch. When the buoys are spotted, a deckhand throws a grappling hook attached to a rope to grab the short length of rope that's suspended between the buoys. This rope is also attached to the pot's shot. A deckhand pulls the rope on board and attaches it to a mechanical winch, which hoists the pot up and onto the hydraulic lift. One of the more dangerous parts of this job is managing the heavy, swinging pots. Bad weather tosses them around like cardboard boxes, and it's up to the deckhand to grab and secure the pot onto the lift.

The lift tilts the pot up at an angle and a deckhand opens the trap door. The crabs spill out onto a large metal table, and the crew very quickly sorts them according to size. Only adult male king and opilio crabs can be kept, in order to keep the crab population strong. Failure to adhere to the adult size restrictions results in fines, so it's important that the crew only holds onto the keepers. As the crabs are sorted, the small ones and the females go back into the ocean, and the keepers are sent through a hole in the deck to a saltwater holding tank that keeps the crabs alive for delivery.

Get your sea legs and click ahead to read more about how crab fishing works.

Deadly Conditions

A deckhand starts his day with coffee and a lot of "house cleaning."
A deckhand starts his day with coffee and a lot of "house cleaning."
Discovery Channel

One of the most treacherous aspects of the Bering Sea is the weather. The king and opilio crab seasons in Alaska are in October and January when the weather isn't kind. Strong winds, storms, snow and ice pummel everything in the boats' paths, tossing them back and forth over 20- to 40-foot (6- to 12-meter) waves.

The weather also brings ice -- the arch enemy of a fishing boat. In temperatures between zero and 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 17 and minus 6 degrees Celsius), ice can build up fast and cause a boat to become extremely unstable. A full load of iced-over crab pots can add an additional 45 tons (41 metric tons) to the overall load, and that doesn't even count the ice built up on the boat itself. For this reason, during icy weather the crew is constantly using sledgehammers to break any ice buildup. Another danger is falling ice. There's a lot of overhead equipment on a crab boat that can freeze over. If the sun comes out, and the ice begins to melt, look out for falling ice. A 50-pound (22-kilogram) ice block dropping from 20 feet (6 meters) up could easily kill a deckhand.

Ice can also form at sea as ice packs. A surface temperature of 28.5 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 2 degrees Celsius) will freeze the top layer of saltwater. Freezing sea spray collects on these frozen surfaces, and the ice pack actually connects and grows into one large iced-over surface. Ice packs can grow up to 25 square miles (64 square kilometers) per day. Besides the inherent dangers of moving a boat through icy waters, the ice can also trap the buoys and crab pots underneath it and send them up to 100 miles (161 kilometers) from where they were dropped. It can get expensive fast if a captain starts losing gear -- a crab pot costs about $1,000 to replace.

Another deadly aspect of the job is the sheer exhaustion the crew faces. When the fish are biting, the captains are relentless, pushing their crews to work as long as two days straight without sleep. Couple that with backbreaking work and a boat that's constantly being tossed back and forth with large waves washing over the rails, and you have a recipe for disaster. Tired workers can get careless, and carelessness can mean the difference between life and death. If your leg gets caught in a line of rope, you could be pulled overboard. If you're feeding a bait-cutting machine and look away, it can suck your arm in. If you're drowsy, you might not see that pot swinging your way and get crushed like an egg. You get the picture.

To make crab fishing safer, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has instituted a quota system. In the past, there were too many boats at sea competing for the same crabs. Up to 250 boats in all shapes and sizes battled each other each fishing season derby style, meaning each boat was permitted to catch as many as it could within a set period of time. It simply got too crowded. Now, each boat is only permitted to catch a certain amount, and the number of boats has dropped to about 80. Quotas vary by boat, depending on size and fishing history.

For some inside information on the show's production, toss the keepers into the tank and click forward to the next page.

Film Crew

Cameraman Marc Carter braves the conditions for the right shot.
Cameraman Marc Carter braves the conditions for the right shot.
Discovery Channel

Pulling off a show like "Deadliest Catch" is no pleasure cruise. The entire film crew usually arrives about a week before fishing season begins, most times even beating the boats to Dutch Harbor. During this time, the camera crew does any lead prep that it can -- checking and rigging cameras, taking inventory of tape stock and making sure everyone is up to speed on safety training and gear. The boats have at least four remote cameras attached to various parts of the vessel, so when they arrive, it's a mad scramble to get onboard and start rigging. Each two-man camera/producer team is responsible for its own footage, so a friendly competition has evolved around who can dream up the most extreme camera rig and snag the best shots.

Contrary to what some viewers think, the camera crew doesn't jump into in a water taxi at the end of every day and get shuttled back to a warm hotel room. The camera crew lives on the boat for the entire crab run, usually from three to five weeks. Quarters on these boats are tight, so the captains don't allow more than two film crew members onboard. Because of this, there's no soundman -- meaning all audio is captured with camera microphonesand small mics attached to each deckhand. There are also boats and helicopters that capture footage outside of the fishing boats.

Aside from being skilled cameramen, the crew for "Deadliest Catch" must also be tough as nails, personable enough to get along with the boat crew and able to repair camera gear on the fly. One adventurous cameraman even stepped up and filled in as a deckhand after a greenhorn quit working. The show uses about 50 Sony HDV cameras per season, and most of these are lost or inoperable by the end of the run. Saltwater and ice are not good for high-definition cameras and tiny viewing screens. Only cameras with LCD viewing screens are used because of safety issues -- it's tough to stay aware of your surroundings if you're constantly looking through a small viewfinder.

The camera teams weatherproof the cameras as best as they can, but refrain from using underwater camera housings because of the weight and bulk they bring. Camera teams report back to headquarters at Dutch Harbor each day by satellite phone. The show's producers keep track of storylines and suggest footage ideas that help flesh out the stories. If a greenhorn on the Time Bandit is floundering and another on the Northwestern is doing great, the producers have a storyline. The land crew also helps to organize the footage for the exhausted camera team who often don't even know what day it is, much less what they've been shooting.

One thing that sets "Deadliest Catch" apart from other reality TV shows is that the camera teams get interviews and reactions in the moment. Most reality shows tape interviews after the show has finished principal photography. The show's producers believe that this brings immediacy and a genuine reality that's missing from most other shows in the genre.

There's nothing you can do; that camera is toast. So bury it at sea and click forward to read more about the show's production and how much money these fearless seamen reel in.

"Deadliest Catch" Show Production

Crab sorting is such a quiet time.
Crab sorting is such a quiet time.
Discovery Channel

Once onboard, the camera team pretty much assumes the schedule of the fishing crew. If this means shooting for 24 hours in a row, so be it. The cameras rigged in and around the boats run almost constantly, capturing everything that happens from a variety of angles. There are no midnight tape exchanges from the boat to the editing team either. So once a tape is shot it's moved to a safe place and kept there until the boat is back at Dutch Harbor. This leaves the show's editors with a quick turnaround time once they get their hands on the massive amount of footage. The copious notes kept by the camera teams are key in making sure none of the best shots and interviews are overlooked.

Back home, the show's producers draw up a rough template for the season based on the daily phone calls from ship to shore. There's also a camera team that stays with the Coast Guard team in case of an accident. One minor accident occurred when a cameraman stepped backward and fell into a crab dump hole. He cracked some ribs but managed to go on with the shoot. To add insult to injury, per fishing tradition, he was forced to pony up beer for the crew for falling into the crab tank.

The captains and crew generally seem happy with their newfound fame. They all maintain that they're fishermen first and TV personalities second. They also think that it's shed some light on a tough job and that they've gained more respect, in general. Several of the boats have their own Web sites with areas for fans to ask questions, look at pictures and, of course, buy some merchandise. (I mean, who doesn't need a Cornelia Marie hoodie?) The Hanson family even developed and released a video game for Xbox 360 and PC in June 2008 called "Deadliest Catch: Alaskan Storm" that puts the gamer in the captain's chair. As for the rest of the fleet from Dutch Harbor, there was some occasional grumbling about the captains on "Deadliest Catch," but the production team believes most of them secretly wanted to be on the show themselves.

For more information on the ocean and the adventures you may find there, feel free to fish through the captivating selection of links on the following page.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • "Capt. Sig Reflects on 'Deadliest Catch' & the fans." deadliestreports.com. 2008. http://deadliestreports.wordpress.com/
  • "Deadliest Catch." deadliestcatch.com. 2008. http://www.deadliest-catch.com/
  • "Deadliest catch? It's off Oregon's coast." The Oregonian. May 14, 2008. http://www.oregonlive.com/commentary/oregonian/index.ssf?/base/editorial/1210721121205340.xml&coll=7
  • "Fatalities in the Commercial Fishing Industry in Alaska." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2008. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fishfat.html
  • "Interview with Jeff Conroy." discovery.com. 2008. http://www.discoverychannel.co.uk/dangerousjobs/deadliestcatch/interview/index.shtml
  • "Life and Death on the Bering Sea: Deadliest Catch Alaskan Storm for Xbox 360 and PC." greenwavegames.com. February 26, 2008. http://www.greenwavegames.com/dcas-approved.pdf
  • "National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2006." bls.gov. August 9, 2007. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/cfoi.pdf
  • Chansanchai, Athima. "'Deadliest Catch': Show is a star turn for Seattle-based crew." seattlesourcepi.nwsource.com. May 4, 2008. http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/tv/361860_catch06.html
  • McNeil, Ryan. Interview. July 15, 2008.
  • Pemberton, Mary. "Fishing in Alaska becoming less deadly." The Associated Press, March 30, 2008. http://www.theworldlink.com/articles/2008/03/30/news/doc47edec1822797650380827.txt