Despite all the challenges of the last year, Deadliest Catch is back for a 17th year. This year, Discovery’s reality TV show follows eight boats in the Alaskan king crab fishing fleet as they battle the elements, a global pandemic, worries about sustainability, and, as always, each other.
“The season still had accidents, waves, and weather—we had a lot of ice come down from Russia,” says Sig Hansen, the captain of the F/V Northwestern, who has been on the show since the beginning. “But, COVID was the biggest hurdle and obstacle we’ve faced as a fleet, yet.”
The show, streaming now on discovery+ and premiering on the Discovery channel on April 20, opens with the boats roped up in harbor. But already the fishermen are stressed.
The global pandemic prevented the Alaska Department of Fish and Game from performing its usual summer crab surveys used to set a quota. Without them, the fishermen have no intel on where the crab are and, even more importantly, any sense of the health of the population. The rules dictate that if the fleet doesn’t catch its allocation, the fishery must close for two years. And with many of the usual fishing boats stuck in Seattle, unable to make it to the Alaska waters because of quarantine rules, the challenge of catching the quota looked daunting.
“A shutdown was a real possibility and it was a scary thought for us,” says Hansen.
That threat put even more pressure on an already deadly job. Alaskan crab fishing is the most dangerous occupation in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, with 300 fatalities per 100,000 employees. Working in the Bering Sea as the season shifts from fall to winter, daylight dwindles, storms rage, seas build and shifts drag on to 18 hours or more, the biggest dangers are drowning and hypothermia, but injuries are common too.
Hansen says the nature of the job is big part of the show’s longevity—Deadliest Catch ranks among the top 15 longest running reality TV shows.
“I think people really appreciate the work ethic,” he says. “And they’re inspired by the risk and reward and the struggles we go through. It’s not a 9-to-5 job.”
The show has always focused on that dynamic, and has gotten a lot more polished in showing it, while retaining the raw feel of looking behind the curtain. This season, the camera crews highlight the camaraderie between the captains and crews more than in the past.
“Yeah we’re going to compete and lie to each other,” Hansen says. “But at the end of the day there’s a mutual respect. If someone needs help you’re going to help, even if it is your mortal enemy. Our relationships are so much deeper than people realize, or we even realize ourselves.”
That may be more important after this season. The controversial documentary Seaspiracy is raising questions about the sustainability and ethics of commercial fishing globally. Hansen admits the king crab fishery used to overfish. But today, “it’s all about sustainability,” he says. “We want the crabs there for future generations.”
That’s a personal goal for Hansen. Part of Season 17’s storyline is his own transition into retirement, with his daughter Mandy edging into the captain’s chair.
“She’s thinking on her own and making judgement calls,” he says. “Sometimes she undermines me.”
He won’t say when Mandy might take over the boat or how much longer the series will continue. All he’ll say is that the heart of what makes it compelling television isn’t going anywhere.
“There’s only one way to catch crab,” he says. “We’re always going to do it in the same, very prehistoric, way.”
Deadliest Catch premieres Tuesday, April 20 at 8 p.m. EST on Discovery and is streaming now on discovery+
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