Readers with access to Sky TV’s Discovery Channel are probably well aware of the reality show The Deadliest Catch, which chronicles the lives of commercial fishermen catching crabs in the waters of the Arctic’s Bering Sea, between Alaska and Russia.
Conditions are often extreme – 15-metre seas and 50- and 60-knot winds combine with sub-zero temperatures, heavy machinery and 350kg pots to create one of the world’s most hazardous working environments. Without a survival suit, any crewmember lost over the side into the three-degree water will be dead within two minutes. Sixty-seven fishermen have lost their lives in the last 15 years; often a death a week during the short crab season.
A regular on the show is Sig Hansen, skipper of the family-owned 36m crab boat the Northwestern, one of the top producers in the fleet. Hansen is a fourth-generation fisherman, an American with Norwegian roots, and his two brothers work with him as deck hands. He was recently in Auckland and I had the chance to talk to him about the show and life as an Alaskan crab fisherman.
How does the fisheries management of the Alaskan crab fishery work and what effect does it have on how you must work? Do you still have a competitive catch quota system and a short season, forcing boats to work in heavy weather or miss out?
SH: Up until two years ago we had a competitive quota [all boats competing for a set quota of crabs – once caught the fishery is closed for the season] forcing us to fish in nearly all conditions or miss out. The season might only last 70 or 80 hours. Then we went to the Individual Fishing Quota [IFQ], very similar to the ITQ system you have here in New Zealand. It was supposed to make things safer for us, and it has in that we know we can stop now if the weather is extreme, but at the same time we are still racing to get the crabs back to the processor. The processors and the market have so much control over the industry that the small windows of time are still there. We were supposed to have a larger window of time to deliver at more leisure, but that hasn’t happened.
Does the weather and ice movement have an effect on when you can fish?
SH: It does. We have some pretty bad scenarios now. Depending on the fisheries zone, we are locked into delivering to the ports where we have catch history, in each zone. The northern catch needs to be delivered to Saint Paul Island, because that is where the catch history is. The ice came down last year and engulfed the island, but we have no choice but to deliver there, so what do you do? There is no flexibility in the new system.
If the crabs don’t live in structure like our crayfish, how do you decide where to set your crab pots?
SH: We have noticed trends. The opilio crabs tend to have a northern trend in the populations themselves; the king crabs have more of a western trend for all the populations and there are many schools of crabs moving about out there. We try to follow that pattern and we spread the gear out. For king crab we fish maybe 130-150km east and west to start with until we get dialled in; with the opilio it is the same thing. Finding the concentrations each season is a matter of instinct and hunch, like it has always been. We try to stay away from the other boats if we can.
In the shows that I have seen, the weather seems to be uniformly heavy. Is the weather just always crap in the Bering Sea or do the producers just like to pick on the most dramatic conditions when they cut the show?
SH: I do think they want to show the dramatic side. They shoot thousands of hours of footage, and I can understand that they are trying to put a story-board together and make it fit. Everything that they film is accurate, but you will see a lot of the more foul weather as opposed to the calm days; I suppose that’s what sells, but the bad weather is a reality.
What are typical crab fishing conditions like?
SH: [Laughs] It’s just pure hell all the time! It’s crab fishing, it’s not an industry for the soft-skinned – you have to want it.
What sort of wind and sea conditions would make you stop fishing and seek shelter?
SH: It depends. On our boat we have been able to fish some pretty extreme conditions, and one of the reasons is that we have the same crew, which makes it safer. I’m so familiar with the boat that I can operate it much better than a skipper who had never been on it before – it’s one of those things – you can feel it. Forty or 50 knots is pretty normal, and I’ll fish through 60 or 70 knots, depending on the wave heights, then we will really have to take a look at it. But it’s all in the eye of the beholder – my fifty knots may be your sixty, if that is fair to say. We don’t push the envelope; it depends on who is working the boat and how the seas are.
I know that you have avoided serious injuries to your crew, but with a show title like ‘The Deadliest Catch’, crab fishing in the Bering Sea must have claimed a lot of lives and boats over the years?
SH: Absolutely. I don’t know the numbers off the top of my head, but it seems like there is always a fatality. Every year there is something that goes wrong – it is fishing, and they are extreme conditions. A lot of it is due to the weather. A problem with Alaska is that you have this shallow shelf that drops off to a couple of thousand fathoms. This forms very tall, close-together waves on the shelf, and these are the problem – they do so much damage because they are so close together. A lot of the times the boats are loaded with crab pots, so they are already top-heavy.
I take it ice is a big problem, adding weight to the topsides and de-stabilizing the boats?
SH: It is. We have stability reports onboard and we try to follow them to the letter, but a lot of times ice can build so fast there is nothing we can do about it. So we do try to keep up with the ice and there is a ‘fudge factor’. That is where having experience on the same boat pays off – you do tend to know her limitations. In the worst-case scenario, if you are loaded with pots you can always cut the ties and lose the gear; you don’t have to spend the time untying and setting them, and that’s been done to save a vessel.
Do you have problems with pack ice often – do you feel that the ice pack has retreated in recent years?
SH: I would say that over the last eight or ten years it has been a little less, but the last couple of years we have had some trouble with pack ice. We hate to see the ice because when ice comes down from the north your gear is gone – you have lost your season and you are looking for your pots rather than fishing. One good thing about ice is that it does bring down nutrients.
I don’t know if global warming really is the problem that is being painted. As far as the fishing goes, the old-timers still in the industry tell me they have not seen so many crabs since the boom times of the ’50s and ’60s – they can’t believe it.
Do you think that fishermen’s superstitions help the crews cope mentally with working in such a harsh environment?
SH: The superstitions have always been there, but they are not going to stop us from fishing. It’s more of a thing you do for bar-talk or to make conversation. Not leaving port on a Friday is one superstition, and the one about suitcases we take seriously. The first camera crew tried to take a bunch of suitcases on board, but we refused, so they had to unpack everything onto the boat and leave the suitcases on the dock.
How does this gruelling work equate with TV fame, people recognising you in the street and so on?
SH: I think it is a good thing. All the feedback I’m getting lately is positive, from lobster fishermen on the east coast of the US, to even here in New Zealand. Down at the Auckland Fish Market the owner told me that they are now stocking king crab and they are selling more and more. I think that people see the work that goes into getting seafood on their plates, so they appreciate it that much more; it makes me feel pretty good about what we are doing with the show.
Has it had an effect on crews?
SH: I think the guys pretty much know that this isn’t going to last forever. It’s a once-in-lifetime deal. We really wanted to do it just the one year, and then it just kind of snowballed. I guess when you get your fifteen minutes of fame you might as well run with it.
I can imagine why the show appeals to people in boring city jobs, but how do the Alaskan locals and other fishermen, to whom this sort of life is not unusual, react to this new-found ‘rock star’ status of the crab fishermen featured on the show?
SH: The first time around we wanted to do it for our families as a kind of a keepsake. We took a lot of heat and a lot of them turned their backs to us. These days, all the guys that turned their backs to us want to participate in the show – they see the good that has come from it. Dutch Harbour is such a little town that they were afraid that, seeing the true working conditions, the insurance companies would freak out and take it negatively, but they haven’t done that. Now the benefits are also political. The governor of Alaska said that we have done more for the state than anybody, and those are pretty big words. How can you go wrong?
Do you and your crewmen get paid by the TV people to appear on the show?
SH: They pay a little bit of money for the time and effort involved, but it’s not like we are getting rich on it. It would be nice to see more, but what are you going to do? I see there are benefits on the other side of the coin, or I would not want to do it anymore. It is a hassle having the camera crews on board – it’s not easy.
Do you think the camera makes the guys moderate their language a bit?
SH: There is editing, and you will hear a lot of ‘bleeps’ on the screen. But I think that is one reason the film crew wanted to stay with our boat – we are pretty natural. After the first year we got used to having the cameras around, and they said that’s why they like it. As long as the camera doesn’t bother you, you are going to be yourself, and that is what they are really after; that’s their big motivation – to get realistic action and reactions from the crew, and our guys give it.
I see that you are branching out into tourist ventures and internet shopping. There are also DVD sales, interactive games and contests and so on, on the Discovery website. What percentage of your time is now taken up with this sort of business attached to the show, as apposed to actually fishing?
SH: We are normally busy fishing five to seven months a year. We have spent a little time trying to do sales on the website [www.fvnorthwestern.com] and that’s kind of for fun. Although it’s actually making some money, I’m not going to bet the farm on it. But it’s a bit of extra income, so why not? However one thing is sure: we are not going to go into acting for cryin’ out loud!
I assume that to make a big boat like the Northwestern pay, and for fishermen to endure the gruelling conditions we see, there must be good money in crabs?
SH: It’s cyclical. We’ve worked for thirty days and lost money, and then we have had eighty-hour seasons where we have done over half-a-million bucks. Now there is a rebound in stocks, it is starting to get a little better – that is another benefit to the IFQ – we are able to lease additional quota, which can supplement our income. But the money is not the same as it was in the seventies or mid-eighties.
What is the total annual crab catch in Alaska worth?
SH: Historically, it has been around 240 million US dollars when everything has been firing on all cylinders. Nowadays there are a few species that aren’t being caught, so I would guess around US160-180 million.
It is usual in the TV world for a successful formula to be rapidly copied. Have you heard of any other shows of the type being made or planned?
SH: Absolutely. The production company that started The Deadliest Catch also did one with the lobstermen on the east coast. I think it’s going pretty well; it doesn’t have the same drama with the weather though. But the real hook to The Deadliest Catch is that is reality at its most truthful, not like these made-up ‘reality’ TV shows. That is what people are intrigued by the most.
I assume you have a professional film crew on board, and maybe fixed cameras. Do the fishermen shoot any footage themselves?
SH: No, we don’t shoot any. They have fixed cameras and two cameramen who walk around and interview when they can, and try to get comments. They try to stay out of the way, but you know they are there. We have saved their lives twice so far, because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s just one of those things.
How do the TV production crews stand up to life on board?
SH: They are pretty weak for the first day or two, which is kind of nice for us – we know they are not in our faces for the first day or so, when they are green. Actually they are pretty heroic – I will give it to them – they are out there for the same times in the same conditions as we are. This last year they went to high-definition cameras and they couldn’t keep them going for more than thirty seconds at a time, they were freezing up that fast, so they were busy just fixing cameras.
Tell me about your boat, the Northwestern. Is it ice-strengthened?
SH: No. There are a few boats that are thicker hulled. They are not really meant to be in the ice like that, but if you end up there you have to really go easy, keep going forward to protect the propellers without too much speed – it’s all you can do.
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