“Deadliest Catch” is a reality TV show about crab fishermen who traverse the Bering Sea searching for snow, opilio, and Alaskan king crab, the most treasured captures among the crab species. Discovery premiered it in 2005, and its popularity has steadily increased; the company broadcasts it worldwide, both on TV and via its streaming service, Discovery+.
One of the main reasons that people tune in religiously is the daily danger that the crew onboard the fishing vessels face. Commercial fishing has one of the highest injury and mortality rates in the US, and crab fishing increases those odds. While technology has helped improve the crew’s safety, navigation, and daily living conditions, the activity on deck during work hours is hectic and highly competitive, so a minor mistake could have severe consequences.
For instance, crew members must raise crab pots, also called crab cages or crab traps from the sea, while being blasted by a strong wind, high waves, and constant shaking of the boat. Raising the cage or dropping it into the sea requires the fishermen to lean over the side. Moreover, while doing so, the crew must dodge full pots containing hundreds of pounds of moving crabs on their trajectory to the vessel’s storage.
With that in mind, scratches, beginning stages of hypothermia, and concussions are the best-case scenarios; hence, US Coast Guard maintains rescue helicopters near well-known Alaskan fishing grounds, ready to airlift injured crew members. It’s not unfathomable that deckhands in “Deadliest Catch” can earn up to $170,000 for their skills, hard work, constant focus, and daily risk. They get paid for an entire season, lasting just two to three months, with bonuses for meeting the quota, and a paycheck from Discovery Channel.
Only veterans in “Deadliest Catch” can earn so much
Deckhands can earn up to $170,000 per season, but a salary of $25,000 to $50,000 per year is the norm. Their payout depends on experience, time spent on the vessel, their efficiency during the season, and most importantly, the total catch of the boat during the season. Some deckhands return for two seasons, typically starting in January and October, and thus work during three to six months of the year. Discovery Channel lets deckhands increase their annual take-home pay, by awarding them a per-episode salary.
Once again, payment ranges based on their expertise, prominence, and number of appearances in, so far, 19 seasons of “Deadliest Catch.” It’s worth mentioning that countries such as Russia and China can afford to pay their deckhands less, and thus sell crabs cheaper, affecting the yield of American captains. Furthermore, foreign companies sometimes poach the most experienced deckhands, offering them unjustifiably higher salaries.
It’s all hands on deck when the Northwestern almost capsizes due to ice nearly doubling its weight. 🧊 With little to no options, Captain Sig has a hard decision to make. #DeadliestCatch starts NOW on @Discovery and streaming on @discoveryplus. pic.twitter.com/B2omjNWnaw
— Deadliest Catch (@DeadliestCatch) August 3, 2022
Deckhands make slightly more than minimum wage
Anyone who has seen a “Deadliest Catch” episode understands why deckhands can command a high salary, with facts backed up the on-screen dangers. In 2006, about a year and a half after the show premiered, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics released data about the job danger. Although they only collected data for commercial fishing, with a ratio of 141.7 deaths for 100,00 workers, it was still a 75% higher mortality rate than flight engineers, loggers, and pilots.
Alaskan crab fishing data estimates more than double the fatality rate, most recently at about 300 deaths per 100,000 workers. According to CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) research, 878 fishermen died from a traumatic injury between 2000 and 2019, about 43 deaths annually, but just under half of those were actually due to vessel disasters.
While the statistics are scary, things worsen when viewers realize that most deckhands don’t get the aforementioned eye-watering sum as recompense. According to the most recent data from May 2019, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a median income of $29,860 per year for anglers and hunters. They found that the bottom 10% of fishermen and hunters earn less than $18,800 yearly, while the top 10% can get over $48,170. Alaska’s minimum wage was averaging only nearly $10 per hour in 2017, and only rose slightly above in 2021.
The investigation further clarifies that the payment can vary drastically, depending on the season’s length, the fleet’s size, and the extent of the catch. The US introduced an Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) system in 2006, where each registered vessel gets a quota to fill – larger ships with a longer time in the industry get high quotas. However, this system prevents the crabs’ extinction, raises their price, and limits monopoly over a fishing spot by allowing each vessel a share.
The bonus is the key
US Labor of Statistics also states that the companies frequently hire students, felons, or seasonal workers since the job requires no formal education, and often no prior on-the-job experience. Thus, they can keep the payment low, and still fill many of the roughly 4,400 openings projected yearly. Unsurprisingly, usually only desperate people would consider such a dangerous job for slightly more than a minimum wage. Thankfully, vessels incentivize workers through a crew share bonus, where every deckhand gets a percentage of the boat’s overall catch in the season, typically between 1,5% and 10% of the adjusted gross yield for newcomers, also called “greenhorns” or simply rookies.
Deckhands in the show have reportedly earned as much as $50,000 from the share alone, which motivates workers to perform better, faster, longer, and in unison; individual success is also the team’s success. Still, a deckhand will only get $150,000 to $170,000 if they work three or six months and receive a significant portion of the crew share. They have a higher chance if they appear in the show for several years, and received love or hate audience responses.
According to former boat captains Gary and Kenny Ripka, who appeared in the spin-off “Deadliest Catch: Dungeon Cove,” deckhands made between $15,000 and $50,000 per season under their command – Gary gave an estimate of $30,000 for six weeks of work. Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, a non-profit trade association, revealed in 2019 that crew members could make $100,000 per year, based on their anecdotal evidence. However, they needed to clarify how many seasons their crew did, and how skilled they were.
Captains make much more
Vessel captains can expect to earn upwards of $200,000 per season when times are good; Kenny told People magazine in 2016 that he made up to $170,000 in six weeks several times. However, Jake Anderson has a different story – he started as a greenhorn aboard the F/V Northwestern in 2007, and debuted in an episode of the show on 15 May. Jake became a deck boss in 2012 and obtained a captain’s license towards the end of the year. In 2015, he became the captain of the crab fishing boat Saga, and debuted in that role during the show’s 12th season. Jake claimed that he made $2.5 million in 11 days as the captain but also clarified that he received part of that compensation for managing his multi-million-dollar company. On that note, Sig Hansen, the captain of Northwestern and a multi-functional cargo vessel Stålbas, which he converted to catch crabs, allegedly had a net worth of $3.5 million by 2019, according to PontoonPedia.com.
Some captains offer guaranteed pay
The uncertainty of success frequently attracts deckhands, but not all of them work with crab traps. Some deckhands make meals for the crew, clean the boat, buy groceries, or help with planning. Therefore, some prefer not to test their luck with compensation and injuries. That was apparent in 2022 when reports of overfishing in Alaskan waters emerged.
Researchers discovered that the population of snow crabs, which the crew members of “Deadliest Catch” are usually gunning for, alongside red king crab and golden king crab, has dwindled. Therefore, some captains offer a $50 to $100 daily rate to deckhands, with some incentives for performance, and potentially, a smaller crew share percentage.
Viewers forget or don’t realize that crew members must obtain a commercial fishing license, ranging from about $60 for residents to $165 for non-residents. Moreover, they are on the hook for purchasing necessary equipment such as rubber boots, sleeping bags, and thick gloves. That may cost up to $400 per season, and more if they must repair or replace their gear in port.
Captains occasionally choose other crab species
Compensation for deckhands can change every season, as demonstrated by the 19th season of “Deadliest Catch,” which premiered in April 2023. Mike Rowe, the show’s narrator, said that the crab species, their rarity, the current price, and the vessel’s quota, all impacted the ship’s captain’s decisions every few months.
These deckhands are built different 💪#DeadliestCatch starts NOW on #Discovery.
Posted by Deadliest Catch on Tuesday, June 20, 2023
Mike mentioned early in the season that Alaskan king crab prices are through the roof, which made them desirable. However, captains knew that their population wasn’t replenishing fast enough, likely because of disease and poor habitat conditions. Hence, some Bering Sea captains decided to go for Eastern Bardi or tanner crab, whose price is lower, but whose numbers are abundant. That allows captains to fill their quota, and ensure that everyone aboard the ship gets a hefty payday.
For that reason, Discovery granted Sig Hensen, one of the wealthiest captains we mentioned, a spin-off show, “Deadliest Catch: The Viking Returns,” in 2022. He moved to Norway, where the restrictions are lax, and king and troll crabs and new species are available year-round.