The Most Cooked-Up Catch

Saving fisheries -- and taking the edge off the dangerous derby of the sea.

  • Deckhand Scott Hillstrand shows off a large Alaskan red king crab on the deck of the Time Bandit, on the Bering Sea.

    Cameron Glendenning
  • Crabs are hoisted aboard the Pacific Wind on the Bering Sea.

  • Deckhand Chris "Chilly" Anderson with a pair of 15-plus-pound Alaskan Red king crabs, caught in the Bering Sea.

    Cameron Glendenning
  • Another day of sorting crabs on the frozen deck of the Rollo, with the temperature at -20 and the swell on the Bering Sea at 30 feet.

    Cameron Glendenning
  • In the hold below deck, 120,000 pounds of Bering Sea king crab are ready to be offloaded in King Cove, Alaska.

    Cameron Glendenning

It's hard to put a finger on what drives the wild popularity of Deadliest Catch, the Discovery Channel's series about crab fishing in the Bering Sea. Pulling load after load of crustaceans off the bottom of the ocean seems like pretty thin stuff for a runaway entertainment phenomenon. Yet the show has somehow won over more than 4 million viewers and garnered five seasons of red-hot ratings.

Granted, the weekly drama of the Red Bull-guzzling, cigarette-huffing, bleepity-bleeping captains doing battle with 13 million pounds of king crab does give the show a certain NASCAR-worthy je ne sais quoi. But if there's a single secret ingredient behind the show's success, it is the drama of the multimillion-dollar fishing derby -- starring the likes of Phil Harris, spitting blood and tearing his hair out as his boat gradually falls apart around him, and Johnathan Hillstrand, like a Hells Angel behind the wheel of the Time Bandit -- to catch as many crabs as possible before the government drops the checkered flag on the season. Though it's not much discussed on the show, the scramble for crab is just a videogenic symptom of a larger -- and potentially catastrophic -- problem in fishing: Too many boats chasing too few fish.

"You could've had 25 boats easily catching the whole quota," says Edward Poulsen, a second-generation Bering Sea crab fisherman. "But there were 300 boats."

That free-for-all brought a host of problems, from environmental damage caused by carpet-bombing the ocean floor with crab pots, to bankruptcies and a chilling roster of lost fishermen and boats that sank after they ventured out into fierce storms so they wouldn't get left behind in the race. For years, crab fishing in the Bering Sea was the deadliest job in the country -- more likely to kill you than going on foot patrol in Iraq.

But even as the Deadliest Catch rocketed to popularity, the hard lessons of two decades of racing for fish were finally sinking in for fishermen in the Bering Sea, and they were voluntarily agreeing to end the race. You'd never know it from watching the show, but only one season after it hit TV screens, crab fishermen in Alaska began fishing under a new system that permanently divided up the annual catch between all the boats in the fishery. 

"The whole dynamic of the fishery has changed," says Kale Garcia, another longtime crab fisherman, who owns a boat called the Aquila.

In the Bering Sea today, the race for crab is now over. But the fishery there is just one ripple in the tide of a revolution that has swept the fishing world over the past 20 years. Today, fisheries for everything from fish-stick staples like whiting and pollock to high-end delicacies like halibut and sablefish operate under "catch share" programs. Many more, including a major groundfish fishery on the West Coast and one in New England, are now following suit. Jane Lubchenco, the marine biologist who now heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (which manages the nation's fisheries) has launched a concerted effort to institute catch-share programs in as many U.S. fisheries as possible.

Yet even as the tide rises for catch shares, the fleet and the crews in the Bering Sea are still contending with far-reaching aftereffects -- something not seen on TV, and not much discussed by catch-share boosters.

The Most Cooked-Up Catch
Diane Regas
Diane Regas
Jul 28, 2009 09:20 AM
I found Matt Jenkins’ take on catch shares balanced and engaging. He covers the benefits of catch shares and fairly points out some of the challenges this fishery has faced.

Among Alaska crab fishermen, safety, economic stability and resource sustainability have all improved. And while crew pay has doubled, there are fewer crew jobs than there were. Jenkins also explains why crew members are finding it is a lot harder to work their way up from deckhand to captaining their own boat. (Some of the design mistakes in the crab program, I am glad to say, are not allowed under the current fisheries law.)

The good news is that well-designed catch shares have been and can be designed to protect community and crew interests too. The red snapper catch share in the Gulf of Mexico and the halibut and sablefish catch share in Alaska are good examples of how catch shares have improved economics and resource sustainability while at the same time enhancing the stability of fishing communities. And other new ideas are being tried out across the country, including limiting consolidation, devoting a part of the quota to conservation or to address community concerns, creating community quota banks, and creating loan funds that can help keep quota in local communities. (Interestingly, the design of the crab program was determined by a special Act of Congress which helped lock in some serious problems—and the design did not include some of these creative options.)

Catch shares are already proving that they can end the race for fish and prevent – and even reverse - the global collapse of fisheries. Catch shares present a new opportunity for fisheries at a time when many ocean fisheries and the communities that depend on them face a steep decline. As more fisheries move to catch shares, careful and creative design solutions will help improve catch shares for all the stakeholders.
crab fishing
Nov 10, 2010 08:47 PM
 Wow!! You sound just like an EDF press release. As a crab fisherman who was dis-enfranchised by individual fishing quotas and now works in another fishery (where I would like to keep my job). I would just like to thank all of those that died to get the fishing history used in the consideration of quota share allocations, my friends included.

Crab fishing will never be safe and the more days you have on the grounds far from other boats the better your chances of being injured or killed. In 2010 fishing was once again the worlds most dangerous job. When our partner boat "Western Venture" had a crewmember dying on the backdeck we called and called for help. No one could hear our distress calls on George's Bank on September 14, 2010 we lost Charlie on George's and after a half an hour of trying finally got ahold of a boat to relay our distress call.

 Fishing is becoming more dangerous not less and the sad throwing away of fishermen who have nothing but their ability to catch fish to their name is not needed. There are plenty of fish and lots of ways of limiting fishing. President Obama's adoption of this policy will cost him his political career just like the governor of Maine and so many others who supported these job killing policies. The fact that catch shares represent the theft of coastal wages and the redistribution of wealth from the working poor to the already wealthy is all anyone should need to know. JJ
A touch un-HCN-like, in my opinion
loyal reader
loyal reader
Jul 29, 2009 10:39 AM
"A certain NASCAR-worthy je ne sais quoi" -- yeah, that screams "balanced." Really, I know the show is just a hook for this cooked-up story, but do we need the snooty tone about it? There are far deeper reasons why 4 million viewers tune in for a taste of the Bering Sea "derby."
Racing for Lobster Tails
Aug 05, 2009 10:51 AM
I don't know, I kinda liked ""A certain NASCAR-worthy je ne sais quoi" as a descriptive. As well as the toaster/crab boat part. Like I like to say in such differences of opinion, "Honit Soit Qui Mal Y Pense".
High country
Patterson James
Patterson James
Aug 08, 2009 10:27 PM
I believe you guys are talking about sea level.
Quotas on Deadliest Catch
Aug 06, 2009 02:51 PM
For the record, The Deadliest Catch clearly stated in nearly every episode this season that the boats were each trying to reach their "quota" for the season. In fact they even showed what one crew was doing for fun (fishing in balmy weather) after their season ended earlier than the others'...due to the fact that they had reached their QUOTA already!

Maybe the author of this article did not watch the 2009 season...
Comment by Fred Kahrl
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson
Oct 08, 2009 11:37 AM
Great piece on the fisheries ... Alaska Crab fisheries especially.

I was catching up on my back issues of HCN recently, and had set this issue aside particularly because I was "there" when the 200-mile Limit was, in fact, first imposed.

Imagine my surprise to find that Matt Jenkins and I have a 10-year discrepancy! (Note from Matt: Congress did not enact the 200-mile limit until 1976.)

I was a freshly minted Coast Guard airman sent to Kodiak (Alaska) in 1967 with three freshly minted HC-130 H Model aircraft to commence fisheries enforcement flights for the new 200-mile limit.

The Russians, Japanese and Koreans were, at that time, treating the continental shelf of Alaska as their "personal" ground-fishing larders, with LARGE fleets of LARGE vessels busily depleting the these fisheries with efficiency and great success.

I will not bore you with how hard we worked at this task. Suffice it to say that we were flying those three Hercs so hard that we ran out of our gas allotment by the 20th of each month, and had to "borrow" fuel from the Air Force fighter base in King Salmon because our landlord in Kodiak ... the U.S. Navy ... would not hold our fuel chits until the first of the next month.

One month, in fact, the Admiral commanding C.G. District 17 (Alaska) out of Juneau, raided the entire District "Morale Fund" just to keep us flying. That's when we started "borrowing" jet fuel.

When on-scene over the fishing fleets, we had to fly at 200 feet so the NMFS Enforcement Officer could identify the fish species on the decks of the boats we were flying over. (We were officially restricted from flying below that level, so that is what we said when asked. However, [*ahem*] we usually had the climb to get over the large factory ships.)

For the first few months it was comic relief when we would burst out of a squall line or fog bank in a hard turn, with one wing nearly dragging on the water and with one or two engines shut down/props feathered (again, to conserve fuel), and watched the deck workers running for "safety", convinced we were in distress and about to crash.

We were even forced to do ALL of our qualification training in type aircraft enroute to and from missions, which included Search and Rescue, and logistics to the many area LORAN stations. No more lazy days flying circles and doing "touch-and-go's" in the local pattern at Kodiak.

Here's an irony: we were even regularly called down the Aleutian Chain to medevac foreign fishermen who had sustained serious injuries out in the fleet ... injuries too severe to be handled on the "mother" ships. Yes ... the same fishermen who we were "busting" out in the Bering Sea for stealing out fish.

Because the Navy wouldn't allow Russian sailors to be put ashore at their fine Air Station on Adak, many of these evacuations were done from Dutch Harbor. At that time, "Dutch" was almost as primitive as the day WWll ended and the Army departed, not today's civilized and bustling lodestar of "The Most Dangerous Catch." There wasn't even a bridge yet between "town" and the airfield! That meant putting our big birds down, (day - think "stormy") or night on a gravel strip chiseled out of the side of a cliff, with no landing lights or electronic "approach" aids-to-navigation.

I share this history as a context for Jenkins' otherwise fine piece. In 1967 there were fewer than ten crab boats based in Dutch, and there was only one freezer (plant) operating ... which, if memory serves, was on a converted cargo ship; i.e. - no significant local infrastructure yet. In fact, they were lucky if the crusty old bush pilots who helped Reeve Aleutian Airways get started could squeak one of their tired old DC-3s into Dutch once a week with the mail.

The crab boats that HAD worked their way down the Aleutians that far were NOT as large and seaworthy as those featured on TV today, and we had to drop liferafts to more than a few crabber crews (no long-range choppers in THOSE days and not many Survival Suits yet either).

Serious Alaska King Crabbing had started only a few years earlier in post-tidalwave Kodiak (1964) when a shrewd fisheries entrepreneur from the Pacific Northwest single-handedly created a market for the mysterious "delicacy" with a highly successful advertising campaign in New York City. He built a modern freezer plant on a lovely remote inlet on Kodiak Island, helped the the residents of a nearby Aleut village that had been erased by the tidal wave to relocate nearby in the same cove, and hired them to process King Crab.

Kodiak fishermen had been catching Dungeness Crab for years, and had considered King Crab to be a nuisance, plugging up their small traps. By the time I left Kodiak in 1972, King Crab had been fished out all around Kodiak (largeest island un the USA) and the march down the Alaska Peninsula had begun. Fishermen built bigger boats and processors began to move their floating plants West, following the catch, or building new freezers along the way in sleepy Aleut villages.

That may seem like long ago to you, but to me it seems like yesterday compared with the evolution of traditional fisheries here on the Maine Coast where I grew up. If Jenkins had added a sidebar listing the Alaska fisheries that had been wiped out before practical species management was enforced ... herring, shrimp, cod, pollock are a few that come to mind ... it would have added yet another dimension to his report on the value of the management of the King Crab and Opelio ("Snow Crab") that kicked in ... just in time.

Nice job.

Fred J. Kahrl
former AT3 USCG and
one-time founder/editor of the
Kodiak "Island Times"