The Kings of Crabs

[22 April 2007]

By Chris Justice

As a Rutgers College undergraduate, I remember trolling for jobs through the student newspaper, The Daily Targum. The classifieds were a popular destination, and among the apartments for rent, band members needed, and coupons for happy hours, one advertisement always stood out: “Earn $5-10k this summer crabbing in Alaska”. I contemplated pursuing that exotic adventure, but my courage bowed to more practical obligations such as graduating on time or working additional hours at my current part-time job for extra bucks.

Flash forward several years to those Red Lobster commercials urging viewers to taste its succulent king crabs. The hearty white chunks of crabmeat bursting from those crimson shells were Alaska’s version of seafood’s Holy Grail. When the actors dipped those chunks in butter and sprinkled them with lemon juice, I, like many were sold: “Come on, let’s go to Red Lobster.” 

But many don’t realize the hellish conditions fishermen endure to catch those crabs. In 2005, the Discovery Channel helped tell their story with its popular documentary-style reality show, Deadliest Catch. Now in its third season, Deadliest Catch has documented fishermen from different fishing vessels as their boats leave Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and journey into the treacherous Bering Sea to harvest several tons of crabs during the Alaskan king crab and snow crab seasons. In 2004, the Alaskan fleet caught 15.4 million pounds of crab. The four-day king crab season is shorter than the equally treacherous Opilio crab season, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service can shorten each season further depending on variables such as crab breeding conditions and annual populations.

During previous seasons, up to 250 boats have fished the waters north of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. However, due to federal regulations, only 81 boats are crabbing during Season 3 of Deadliest Catch. October’s king crab season and the January snow crab season are packed with adventure, glory, drama, and pain, and the bounty can total several million dollars. For Season 3, the total fleet is expected to earn approximately $62 million. With intimate interviews, live-action footage from the boat’s deck, and panoramic shots of the ocean and islands’ shorelines, Deadliest Catch’s cinematographers nobly capture the spectrum of emotions that erupt during this wild run: from the anxious preparatory stages before opening day to the tragic deaths of crewmembers to the ecstasy of a huge quarry and its lucrative payoffs. 

        Alaskan king crabs come in four subspecies:
The red king crab, which is the most prized.
The blue king crab, which is the largest.
The golden king crab, which is the smallest of the four but boasts the sweetest meat.
The scarlet king crab, smaller in size and population, and found in deeper water than other crabs, is the least desired catch.
Opilio crabs, also known as snow crabs.

Considered “the world’s most dangerous job” due to the extreme weather conditions the fishermen work in and the subsequent death and injury rates they face each season (statistically, during the past decade, four Alaskan crabbers on average die each year), the Alaskan crabbing industry was first examined in creator Thom Beers’s popular three-part miniseries, America’s Deadliest Season, and Deadliest Catch soon followed. The first season is available on DVD, and many Websites, bloggers, games, and fantasy leagues comment on each episode’s events and wager upon which boats will catch the most crabs. “Deadliest Reports” is one such blog, and “Deadliest Catch” is the show’s Unofficial Fan Blog. While such fanfare is not unusual for a popular reality show, what is unique about Deadliest Catch is this: it’s the only show that guarantees there will be serious injury to most participants and that at least one will die each season.

Commercial fishermen are part of a blue-collar fraternity representing one of the world’s most dangerous professions. According to the show’s “Website”, “In Europe, fishermen are fifty times more likely to die while working than any other profession – a statistic which is mirrored in every country where boats take to the high seas in search of food for their populations.” And their jobs are becoming more challenging as fish and shellfish populations continue to decline while the demand for such seafood increases. This means fishermen must travel further, fish harder, and exhaust more resources, namely “human” resources (not least natural resources), to satisfy these lucrative demands.

Narrated to North American audiences by Mike Rowe, Deadliest Catch reminds viewers of the intimate connections between fishing and storytelling and features the hallmarks of memorable narration: an exotic setting, eccentric characters, evocative dialogue, incessant action, and suspenseful storylines. Great drama thrives on conflict, and these fishermen face dangerous obstacles throughout their odyssey. They combat the Bering Sea’s usual suspects: turbulent, 40-foot waves; sub-arctic (60-below) temperatures; icy rains; and piercing, devastating, 80 mph winds. Fishermen fall overboard and die from hypothermia notwithstanding appropriate safety gear that includes an immersion suit and flotation device. On board, they manage the wet, icy deck conditions and the heavy, cumbersome equipment including the traps, which weigh several hundred pounds, and the hydraulically powered cranes that maneuver them. Seasoned fishermen warn rookie deckhands, or “greenhorns”, to “Never stand under the crane.” Fishermen each year succumb to these dangers; 41 have died while crabbing in the past decade. During Season 1, one ship, Big Valley, sunk; among the six on board, only one survived. Nominated for an Emmy in 2006 for cinematography, the cameramen are equally at risk. None of the production engineers have been seriously injured during three seasons of footage; however, approximately $300,000 of production equipment is lost each season.

But the show’s danger is only part of its appeal. Although the fishermen work intensely, moments of quiet do emerge, and during these moments, cameramen capture the fishermen’s idiosyncrasies, stories, and characters. Early in Season 1, we learn about the fishermen’s numerous superstitions, including “Unlucky Friday” (Good Friday).  Christ’s crucifixion notwithstanding, Fridays are considered bad days to launch a fishing trip, but Sundays, on the other hand, a churchgoing day, are ideal. We learn about the captains’ fishing strategies, each laden with personal danger and financial risk, as they explain their plans from the captain’s chair surrounded by maritime equipment. We learn about the fishermen’s families and who they are leaving behind: during Season 1, one wife gave birth to a baby girl while her husband’s boat was preparing to depart. Perhaps most unusual is the fishermen’s diets. Since they burn so many calories while working, an estimated 4,000 daily, they gorge whenever possible on the ship’s stockpile; the grocery bill for one ship’s four-day king crab season often exceeds $5,000.

Although the show offers camera time equitably to each boat, Deadliest Catch’s biggest “star” is Norwegian Captain Sig Hansen, whose family has owned the Northwestern since 1977. Sig and his brothers, Norman and Edgar, manage the boat, and their family’s history represents all that is good about this demanding fishing industry. According to the Northwestern‘s homepage, Sig started fishing when he was 14-years-old. He fished commercially for salmon and king crab in Alaska and occasionally for cod and mackerel in Norway. Serving periodically as a “relief skipper” in his early 20s, Sig earned his right to captain the Northwestern by his 24th year. One of the industry’s most successful captains, Sig’s proudest accomplishment is that no major accidents have occurred under his watch. These traditions and the family atmosphere he cultivates are not unique to Northwestern. Always demanding, the patriarchal Sig knows these waters, their inhabitants, and most importantly, his fishermen better than anyone.

Indeed, the Captains of various boats rule using varying styles of leadership. Some captains crack the whip routinely, while others are more relaxed, criticizing sharply when needed, but prodding in a complimentary tone at other times. On the deck, each mate is assigned specific tasks, and each understands the importance of camaraderie: their lives depend on one another. This is a stark contrast to the cutthroat competitions fueling reality shows like Survivor or The Apprentice, which ultimately celebrate individual triumphs. Nowhere was this commonsense commaradere more obvious than in Season 1 of Deadliest Catch: when one fishermen slipped overboard, each deckhand assumed his rescue mission role and pulled him back to safety within minutes. On deck peer pressure keeps everyone in check. 

Deadliest Catch unleashes capitalism in its rawest form: the pursuit of capital in the form of “buried treasures” while conquering the elements and risking death is an archetype for many maritime legends with characters such as Blackbeard, Ahab, and Captain Nemo. Each decision is a calculated investment, and the risks are rewarded with dividends in the form of traps overflowing with crabs, which are literally the fishermen’s bottom line. Pulling up empty traps during one “line” and loaded traps during another adds layers of suspense to an already tense drama. And the work ethic displayed by these hearty individuals represents the power of meritocracy in capitalism: 20-hour shifts are commonplace. Deadliest Catch is a manifestation of this capitalist mantra: “If you work hard, you will be rewarded.” Greenhorns earn a fixed hourly rate, but experienced deckhands are paid a commission directly linked to the catch that reflects a percentage of the overall bounty, which can range from a few thousand dollars to as much as $40,000.

The true source of suspense for these fishermen is not the high seas, but the constant pressure of running low on time.  The shortened crabbing seasons are a harsh reminder that those bounties can be dramatically reduced. The pressure these deadlines place on the sleep-deprived fishermen is tremendous. In fact, the show’s Website reports that next year “Alaska’s crab fishermen will operate under a seasonal quota system that is independent of time; a system that is expected to save lives and protect fishermen from the terrible injuries they sustain in the relentless race against the clock.” This approach will allow captains more flexibility to choose when they fish and should usher safer, less stressful harvests. The 2006 fishing season was called “The Last Rodeo”, and it will hopefully anoint a new era that balances fishermen’s safety, healthy crab populations, and habitat restoration. The dramatic drop in boats for Season 3 is partly due to additional federal regulations, known within the industry as “crab rationalization”, which essentially mandates a privatization program that offers exclusive crab quotas to specific fishermen and corporations.

Woven throughout Deadliest Catch’s tales are rituals that keep viewers returning. Days of preparation are dedicated to maximize success. Greenhorns must be assimilated into the team through mentoring and hazing tactics. The crabs are captured through a grueling process that includes baiting the traps with herring or cod; tossing the traps overboard; marking the spots with buoys; returning after several hours; hooking the buoys with a hand-tossed rope; operating the crane to retrieve the traps; examining the catch (size requirements are strictly enforced and only males are kept); and storing and later processing the crabs (a complex process full of pitfalls). Each step includes repetition, and, combined with the reverence fishermen harbor for the ocean, the crabs, and each step of the process, watching their work through this program inspires the feeling that viewers are experiencing something sacred.

The most provocative ritual is the heroic quest unfolding before viewers’ eyes. These fishermen are modern heroes, and their odyssey follows patterns similar to those articulated by the mythology scholar Joseph Campbell. Every season, the fishermen are called to adventure and overcome their reluctance while saying goodbye to family. In their quest’s initial stages, they pass through several thresholds. Their reliance on ritualistic practices and belief in superstitions reflects their submission to supernatural calls for assistance, and many forces beyond their control challenge their fates. They confront numerous obstacles, and once their bounty is secured, they return to their communities to share their treasures armed with tales of adventure and hard-earned lessons.

These maverick entrepreneurs have returned the “reality” into reality television. And while there is nothing necessarily deadly about their catches, their “catching” is deadly serious. So, the next time you’re eating fresh fish or shellfish, consider the fishermen who harvested that catch and the troubles they endured to provide that delicious bounty.  You may not need that butter or lemon juice to savor such a catch.

A salt- and freshwater angler for more than 30 years, Chris has been fascinated (or obsessed, depending on your temperament) with the sport ever since he caught his first sunfish in Lawrence Brook with his grandfather, Leo. He is an avid catch-and-release angler, and enjoys both spin and fly-fishing. Although he'll pursue anything with gills, his favorite targets are rockfish, trout, and shad. His PopMatters monthly column, The Tackle Box, explores the confluence of the sport and popular culture.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/the-kings-of-crabs/