How will the Alaskan commercial fishing fleet adapt to the historic closures of Bering Sea red king, blue king and snow crab? We’re about to see on reality TV.
Season 19 of the consummate commercial fishing reality TV show Deadliest Catch, expected to premiere in April, promises to be as historic as the devastating closures of the season 2022-23 Alaskan red king, blue king and snow crab Bering Sea fisheries.
And much like the commercial fishing season, the show must go on.
“Fans can anticipate another great season of Deadliest Catch where we will document our captains as they participate in other sustainable Bering Sea crab and pot fisheries, such as golden king crab, bairdi and cod,” Deadliest Catch Executive Producer Arom Starr-Paul said in a October 2022 statement. For viewers, the season is expected to bear witness from the frontlines during hard times.
Crab Closure Timeline
Deadliest Catch debuted in 2005 and by 2007 viewership had catapulted to more than 49 million viewers, making the show one of cable TV’s biggest successes. The 18 seasons have followed the same basic structure, embedding camera crews aboard select commercial crabbing boats and documenting the fishing season for television.
Due to their value, red king and snow crab are financial pillars for Bering Sea fishing operations. But what would happen if these fisheries abruptly didn’t exist? The concern was likely distant in production circles, as the fisheries are rarely—and in the case of Bering Sea snow crab never—closed.
Crab fishing in 2018-19 was bountiful by the numbers, but disruption to the seasonal routine began with the pandemic. While the show and commercial crabbing seasons persisted during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 fishing seasons, stock assessments did not proceed as normal in 2020-21 due to pandemic procedures. The lack of a stock assessment has left us with a lost year of data.
The high crab numbers of 2018-19 combined, along with the lack of a full stock assessment in 2020-21, came ahead of a shockingly low stock assessment for the 2021-22 season. The Alaska Journal of Commerce reported that the 2021-22 catch of Alaskan snow crab was limited to 5.6 million pounds when announced on Oct. 8, 2021, down 88% from the previous season. The bairdi crab season was cut by 53% in the 2021-22 season, although it remains open for 2022-23. Bristol Bay red king crab was closed for the 2021-22 season.
The anemic and cod-focused 2021-22 fishing is recounted on Deadliest Catch Season 18. Episode 24 of Season 18 is even titled “King Crab is Dead,” centering around captains John and Sig, who rally the other skippers to devise a plan to avoid financial ruin.
The stock assessments for the 2022-23 Bering Sea red king and snow crab season prompted Alaska to do what was previously unthinkable to many. Shut it down. The announcement came on Oct. 10, 2022.
“On the heels of that decision came (the) announcement that Bristol Bay red king crab will be closed for the second year in a row, and Bering Sea snow crab will close for the first time in the history of this fishery,” the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers said in a statement. Red and blue king crab were also closed for the Bering Sea fisheries.
So sets the stage for Deadliest Catch Season 19. The fishing vessels must adapt by going after golden king crab, cod and bairdi, as Starr-Paul said. Whether or not pursuing these quarries will pay the bills and keep smiles on crew faces is yet to be seen.
Golden king crab are notoriously deeper and more challenging to fish. Josh Harris of the f/v Cornelia Marie talked about his Deadliest Catch Season 18 golden king crab “nightmare” to Entertainment Weekly on April 19, 2022.
“If we were fishing for red king crab, we would probably use like two shots of line, and these pots for golden king crabs, we would use ten shots of line, so that’s enough for six or seven pots for normal red king crabs,” he said. “So, it was an absolute nightmare. It was scary.”
In the case of Deadliest Catch, real-world news teases what may be featured on the show. With regards to Bering Sea cod this season, Alaska Public Media (APM) reported on Jan. 9 about tensions between crabbers-turned-cod fisherman and seafood processors. APM followed Chris Studeman, captain and co-owner of the 104-foot f/v Kevleen K.
Reportedly, seafood processors like Trident Seafoods originally posted 40 cents per pound for cod, which incensed Studeman and those aboard about 26 boats from big and small fleets. The decision led to an informal unified strike until the price rose to a level the fishermen deemed fair.
There were an estimated 40 to 50 boats fishing federal cod this season, meaning around half the fleet was involved in the protest.
“We were just trying to make sure we got the price to come out before we all went fishing,” Studeman said to APM. “Forty cents wasn’t going to work.”
The strike lasted around three days before processors announced a raise to 45 cents per pound, still less than season 2021-22, but an important increase for a fisherman’s bottom line. At the time of this writing, ahead of the show’s season premiere, it is unknown whether Deadliest Catch boats participated in the New Year strike or if the event will be featured in the series.
Regarding the state of the crabs, NOAA announced on Jan. 4 that Congress authorized up to $100 million to finance a buyback program. The program has permanently removed 25 fishing vessels and 62 fishing licenses and permits for almost $97.4 million from Bristol Bay red king, Bering Sea snow and bairdi crab, Aleutian Island red king, Pribilof red and blue king crab and St. Matthew blue king crab fisheries.
Like with the New Year strike, it’s unknown whether this development and the temptation of an early retirement cash out will be a part of Deadliest Catch Season 19. Anecdotally, though, one knows a fishery isn’t doing well when Congress approves a $100 million buyback program.
Also in play at the time of this writing is the ongoing U.S. ban on Russian seafood imports, initially announced by President Joe Biden on March 11, 2022, with support from Alaska senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan. The ban was part of a larger economic sanctioning effort designed to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Tensions between the f/v Wizard and f/v Time Bandit and Russian vessels on the maritime border were documented on Deadliest Catch Season 18.
For the American fishermen on the series, the ban may act as a form of protectionist trade policy that eliminates Russian seafood competition from the domestic market. But the macrolevel effect for seafood prices is unknown, as is the end result of the war in Ukraine. We will find out when the season premieres if those tense standoffs from Season 18 on the U.S.-Russian maritime border escalated.
Of note are the exploits of f/v Northwestern captain Sig Hansen, who in response to the bearish Alaskan seafood scene travelled to Norway to fish for crab. The experience is documented on the Deadliest Catch spinoff series The Viking Returns where Hansen and other familiar faces try their hand at fishing Norwegian waters.
The adventure borne out of the Alaskan crab fishery downturn reconnects Hansen to his Nordic roots. The show premiered last September.
Like the commercial crabbing fishermen they film, the Discovery production crew generally gets to work at sea in October. By all indications filming has proceeded like normal despite the lack of crab (outside of golden king and bairdi). The Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands bairdi crab season usually runs into mid-March.
According to the Discovery Plus communications office, the first round of press releases, teasers and season 19 content will be released in late March.
Despite the hard times, Deadliest Catch should premiere in April as it has for the past 18 years, documenting the triumphs and tribulations of the Alaskan commercial fishing fleet’s working season.
Many of the stories won’t be about the world, but rather the fishermen, their families and the crew dynamics. What’s cooking in the galley? Is the greenhorn cutting bait fast enough? When’s dad’s funeral? Let’s do a man overboard drill.
These stories are as important as ever.
Only one thing is certain for Alaska’s 2022-23 fishing season—Deadliest Catch will be there to represent the fishermen in Season 19.