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Time for 'Deadliest Catch' to go home

Erik Velsko
OPINION: I don’t blame the vessels that jumped on the opportunity to turn "Deadliest Catch" into a profitable endeavor. Commercial fishing in the Bering Sea is a tough business, but their profit is generated at the rest of the crab fleet’s expense. Loren Holmes photo

Almost everyone interested in the commercial fishing industry is now familiar with Discovery Channel’s hit reality series "Deadliest Catch." The show is entertaining, the cinematography is superb, the characters are portrayed as both villainous and heroic and it’s filmed in one of the most brutal environments in the world. To average Americans sitting in front of their televisions, "Deadliest Catch" is an interesting documentary in a historically ignored industry. However, there has been a big problem developing in one of Alaska's most iconic fisheries as a result of the show and legislation known as Bering Sea Crab Rationalization.

It's obvious why the show has enjoyed such success, and I commend the captains, crew and boat owners who have been involved in the series over the last decade. But the fleet that appears on "Deadliest Catch" is creating a problem for the 65 or more other crab boats whose crews depend on the Bering Sea crab resource for financial survival but don't appear on television.

Alaska’s Bering Sea crab fleet has had a rich and tumultuous history. The king crab boom of the 1970s generated exorbitant profits for all who participated; however, the king crab crash of the 1980s saw these same players scrambling to keep their businesses afloat through diversification into other fisheries. Fortunately, the opilio crab fishery emerged as a saving grace to the struggling king crab fleet from the mid 1980s and well into the 1990s. As the opilio quotas dwindled in the late 1990s, different management plans were discussed to end the Olympic-style fishery that Bering Sea crabbers had perfected.

In 2005, Alaska’s notorious Sen. Ted Stevens forced the crab rationalization bill through Congress as a “rider” on a large omnibus spending bill. This very act by the late senator was a shock to many in the crab industry because of the way he circumvented the entire North Pacific Fisheries Management Council process to get this legislation passed. In Alaska, fisheries management is normally addressed through a distinct process by either the NPFMC (federally managed) or Board of Fish (state managed). However, we have seen a number of instances where these councils and boards have been bypassed via lobbying techniques or through the legislative process in an effort to secure a few parties' interests. Most recently, we have seen these sorts of fishery management manipulations with Cook Inlet king salmon allocation between the commercial and sport sectors, but that is for another discussion.

Through Steven's rider legislation two different types of quota were allocated during this controversial change in management structure, IFQ and IPQ. Vessel owners received quota shares (IFQ) based on participation and catch history from previous years in the crab fisheries. Crab processors were also guaranteed the rights to process ninety percent of the crab caught by the vessels that historically delivered crab to their shore plants in Dutch Harbor, Akutan and Kodiak (IPQ). In addition, six CDQ (Alaska’s native corporations created by Stevens) groups split up ten percent of the overall crab quotas as they had before rationalization while captains/crew divvied up three percent. Unfortunately, not everyone was happy with the crab rationalization program mainly because of its inherent unfairness (privatization of a public resource), and the fact that quota owners did not have to be onboard vessels harvesting crab.

There have been some very positive aspects and outcomes from Bering Sea crab rationalization, but there are as many arguments supporting and opposing it as there are crab in the sea. For the sake of brevity, I will not go into them all. I'm concerned here with one that is increasingly becoming more of a problem for the active Bering Sea crab fleet: Discovery Channels hit reality television show "Deadliest Catch."

Quota leasing has become essential to the survival of vessels still active in the Bering Sea crab fisheries. As consolidation within the fleet is increasingly becoming a reality, quota has become available by previous owners of vessels physically selling out of the fishery, but retaining ownership of their quota. In other instances quota owners weren’t allocated enough of the resource to continue their vessel operations; thus, boats were sold and the quota they did earn was leased to vessels still involved in the fishery. More recently, CDQ groups have also been buying up available crab quota outside of the quota they are mandated and leasing it to active vessels in the fishery.

Quota is generally leased to vessels as a percentage of the gross income the vessel receives after delivery of the catch. Lease rates or the amount a vessel has to pay the owner for the rights to fish his/her quota are a bone of contention among the active fishing fleet and quota owners, and these problematic lease fees are only compounded by our "Deadliest Catch" fleet. No legislation has been enacted to control what percentage each party is allocated; yet, quota owners realized the high expenses associated with a Bering Sea crab operation warranted a fair share of the profits from the leased quota…until "Deadliest Catch" came to town.

Commercial fishing is a business and quota owners are naturally going to expect their quota to be fished as cheaply as possible. Generally, the vessel pays all expenses (food, fuel, bait, insurance, etc.) out of the percentage that the quota owners and vessel agreed upon prior to the harvesting of the resource. An increasing problem we see with the "Deadliest Catch" fleet is that they are willing to lease quota significantly cheaper than the industry standard. Different species of crab fetch differing lease rates depending on price of the product, quantity, etc. The fall Bristol Bay Red King Crab season of 2013 saw leases fetching owners of the quota 80 percent of the gross profits, leaving a measly 20 percent to the vessel catching the crab to cover expenses and crew shares in an extremely costly fishery. The numbers don't lie when the pie get sliced so drastically. It was rumored on one "Deadliest Catch" vessel that crew shares for Bristol Bay Red King Crab were $2,000 per man. What’s the reasoning for this, and who would undercut themselves and their industry so drastically? The answer is: a few in our one and only "Deadliest Catch" fleet.

Essentially, they are a subsidized entity of the Bering Sea crab fleet by the Discovery Channel, and for the show to continue they must have crab to fish, even if it’s not profitable. The reason these vessels have driven the lease rates for crab quota down to such ridiculous levels is because the money they make from being on television can afford them the luxury of undercutting their competition.

"Deadliest Catch" vessels expenses for the season are already paid before they leave their docks in Seattle, Homer and Kodiak. Vessels not subsidized by Discovery Channel’s deep pockets cannot make the exorbitant lease rates pencil out, and if they do, captains and crew are making wages comparable to minimum wage. Crab fishing in the Bering Sea is far too dangerous and the work is too tough for this sort of pay. "Deadliest Catch" vessels may be losing money or breaking even fishing, but they are making up for the loss through their subsidies from the cable television giant. Sadly enough the reality show is making reality for those involved in the industry a continuing nightmare.

Ultimately, the entire crab fishing industry suffers and precedence is set to continue the never-ending battle of higher lease rates for the vessels still fishing. In a way, I don’t blame the vessels that jumped on the opportunity to turn "Deadliest Catch" into a profitable endeavor. Commercial fishing in the Bering Sea is a tough business, expenses run high and dwindling quotas don't alleviate any of the pressure. Extra income can help with boat payments, repairs and unforeseen circumstances; however, their profit is generated at the rest of the crab fleet’s expense.

When lease fees continue to increase the entire industry suffers. It seems extremely ironic that the very industry the Discovery Channel is attempting to “document” seeks to destroy and devalue the rest of the Bering Sea crab fleet. Everyone has had their fun watching "Deadliest Catch", but it’s been ten embarrassing years of bad press and unprofessional shenanigans for the Bering Sea crab fleet. I’ll be the first to say I’m sorry Discovery Channel, but it’s time to go back to Hollywood before the damage you have done to the commercial fishing industry becomes irreversible.

Erik Velsko grew up in Homer, Alaska commercial fishing for salmon and halibut in the summers.  He graduated early from high school to fish crab in the Bering Sea in 2001.  He took a short sabbatical from the winter fisheries while attending college at the California Maritime Academy. After completing school, Mr. Velsko returned to year-round fishing operations in Alaska waters, fishing crab and cod in the Bering Sea, halibut in the Gulf of Alaska, and salmon in Bristol Bay. Mr. Velsko holds a USCG 1600 Ton, Oceans Masters license and Third Mate Unlimited Tonnage license, is a Bristol Bay boat owner/operator and permit holder and owns and fishes halibut quota in area 3A.  He also recently became partners in a steel 58' combination vessel based out of Homer that tenders salmon and longlines for halibut.  He and his wife Lacey have three young children: Britta, Estelle and Leo.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.