Over the last year, temperatures rose about four degrees in the Bering Sea, which is 50 times the global average. As filming began for the 13th season of “Deadliest Catch,” which premieres Tuesday night, the show’s fishermen had to contend with a serious problem: With warming waters, the crabs have moved elsewhere.
“The first thing that you need in order to film a show about crab fishing are the crabs,” said executive producer R. Decker Watson, Jr. “If the crabs don’t show up, then we’re all out of business.”
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game sets an annual quota system on crab fishing, depending on a survey they take in the spring and summer. This past year, they found that half the crab was missing, and quotas were cut across the board.
“We didn’t know if we were even going to be on the water long enough to film the 20 hours of ‘Deadliest Catch’ for the season,” Watson said. “It became a much more difficult fight for each skipper… It worries me for the future of the fishermen, they’re really having to fight to save their way of life. But it makes for great television.”
Indeed, the fishermen’s struggle became a major part of the story this season.
“Less crab were coming out of the water,” said Discovery Channel’s Joseph Boyle, who’s also an executive producer on the show. “Clearly the impact is far-reaching at this point. This is a way of life, a tradition; knowledge handed down over multiple generations of fishermen in this area. All of a sudden, that knowledge is no longer valid. How does that impact a community? The fishermen themselves are part of a larger economy in Dutch Harbor and the state of Alaska. I can only imagine the thousands of families and lives affected by any problems within the crab industry.”
Watson said the show didn’t consciously plan to discuss climate change on the show, but “we didn’t have a choice. The conditions forced us, if we were going to tell an authentic story, to discuss what was going on and how this world has been rapidly changing. If you look at just the business impact of climate change up there, it can be massive.”
Of the six captains on the show, two don’t fully subscribe to the concept of climate change. They all planned their fishing accordingly.
“There were a few captains who thought it was hooey,” Boyle said. “They went back to the old spots. ‘Crabs don’t move,’ they said. They found very quickly that it wasn’t quite that simple.”
Boyle called it a “game changer year” for the business. “Sig [Hansen, captain of the F/V Northwestern] is fishing areas that have been proven year after year and suddenly things aren’t working like they used to. How does that impact him and the other guys, if they have to rewrite the rule book on how to fish crab in the Bering Sea?”
Said Hansen: “The fleet is going to need to go further and deeper. Nobody is going to take away a fishermen’s way of life. I can guarantee you that this fleet will not quit… But we’re always fearful that this will be our last year.”
Given the show’s popularity with both blue and red state audiences, Watson and Boyle caution that “Deadliest Catch” makes sure not to wade into the politics of climate change.
“We are telling the story of these fishermen,” Boyle said. “These guys are heroic, they have a job to do and they go out and do it in some of the most demanding circumstances imaginable. It isn’t controversial because all we’re doing is telling their story. When it comes to the issue of the warming waters they’re experiencing, for us it’s about the what, not the why. We’re not there to judge. We’re there to experience what they’re experiencing, to witness it and to see how they overcome it… The facts are what the facts are.”
Added Watson: “There’s nothing political in the way we’re discussing it. I think everyone agrees that the climate is changing; anyone with a thermometer isn’t denying that. This is a changing world and these guys are either having to adapt or they won’t survive.”
A smaller crab quota wasn’t the only thing impacting the “Deadliest Crab” fishermen this season: The warmer waters opened up one hurricane-force style storm after another, thrashing the show’s fishing boats more than usual. Watson said it was the worst season he has seen in 13 years of the show. One fishing vessel not involved with “Deadliest Catch” disappeared in the Bering Sea, with six fishermen lost.
“Deadliest Catch” is no stranger to drama, including the year that Hansen suffered a massive heart attack on his ship. In Season 10, a government shutdown kept the Bering Sea crab boats tied up at the dock. Besides climate change, this season also deals with opiate and methamphetamine addiction, alcoholism, and human mortality.
But the fate of the entire industry may wind up being the biggest drama of all for “Deadliest Catch.”
“This show is tied to the crab quotas, just like the fishermen’s fates are tied to the crab quotas,” Watson said. “Quite simply, if there’s no crab industry, there’s no ‘Deadliest Catch.'”
The Season 13 premiere of “Deadliest Catch” airs Tuesday, April 11, at 9 p.m. ET on the Discovery Channel.