Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

By Terry 

Deadliest Catch Spinoff in Oregon

New reality show focuses on Dungeness crab fishery


Commercial fishermen generally find enough drama while plying the unpredictable ocean in pursuit of their chosen profession.

So when producers of the Discovery Channel's popular, Emmy award-winning television show Deadliest Catch issued a casting call for a spinoff - this one featuring Oregon's Dungeness crab fishery - many fishermen declined. Using a list of fishing vessels and ports provided by the Oregon Dungeness crab Commission, representatives of Original Productions LLC eventually found five familiar vessels skippered by five intrepid souls to appear in five feisty episodes of Deadliest Catch: Dungeon Cove, scheduled to air sometime this autumn.

Launched by Thom Beers in 2005, Deadliest Catch has become one of the network's signature programs. The reality show explores the risks faced and rewards earned by captains and crews, focusing on their exploits while crabbing in Alaska's bering sea. In 2015, the show averaged 3.6 million viewers, ranking among the top 20 cable series, and has earned 16 Emmy awards during its 11 seasons.

In a press release about the spinoff, Rich Ross, group president of Discovery Channel, called Deadliest Catch "one of the most iconic and highly-regarded series on television," noting that the latest iteration "is an opportunity to extend the franchise with new storylines and characters." Among those characters are Jim Burns (F/V Galway Bay) out of Coos Bay, Oregon; John Law (F/V Lady Law); Gary Ripka (F/V Redeemer and F/V Western Breeze); and Mike Retherford (F/V Excalibur and F/V Winona J), all from Newport. F/V Western Hunter served as the "chase vessel" for the filming at sea. The storylines follow these fishermen and their families at sea and on shore as they venture out of Yaquina Bay to pursue Oregon's signature crustacean amid ever-changing, unpredictable conditions.

Their reasons varied, but most of the fishermen who opted out of becoming reality television stars said they preferred to focus on fishing. Some said they had enough "unscripted drama" in their daily lives without having it intentionally hyped to boost television ratings.

"Every year, the boats line up and take off, signaling the start of Dungeness crab season," the press release from Discovery Channel announcing the new show noted. "Millions of dollars are up for grab in one of the last derby-style fisheries in the world, where it pays to be the fastest boat on the crab, and the first boat back to the dock to sell."

In fact, the Dungeness crab fishery intrigued the producers because of the race to catch as many crabs as possible, rather than working under a quota system. It presented them with "an opportunity to tell yet another amazing story of exciting and dangerous adventures at sea." They found the dramatic effect of the "every fisherman for himself (or herself)" approach appealing, especially since the fishermen and their vessels navigate through "a labyrinth" of often-treacherous currents, waves, sandbars and other dangerous conditions along the Oregon Coast.

"But this Wild West fishing style comes at a steep price," the press release stated. "The sea here gives life and takes it, in equal measure."

The bering sea has taken a considerable toll in lives and vessels through the years, but fishing off the Oregon Coast can prove deadlier.

The Dungeness crab fishery is the most dangerous fishery on the West Coast and the third-most fatal fishery in the nation, according to the National Institute of Occupation Safety and Health. The agency's statistics show that 545 commercial fishermen died working in US waters between 2000 and 2010, with an average of nine deaths each year off the West Coast alone.

During that decade, 21 crabbers died in 10 vessel disasters, and six others died from falling overboard. While safety experts say vessel disasters (capsizing, flooding, fire, sinking) cause most fishing deaths – with 40 percent of those fatalities caused by crossing a bar in hazardous conditions, crabbing is especially risky due to the nature of the work and the fishery.

Vessels carry stacks of up to 500 crab pots, depending on license limit, on deck. Each pot weighs 60 to 125 pounds, and the extra weight raises the vessel's center of gravity, making it more vulnerable to capsizing, fishermen say. Shifting pots can injure or knock a crewmember overboard, who can also slip and fall into the ocean while working at the edge of the deck to set and retrieve pots. The Dungeness season begins at the onset of winter, which often means wicked weather that plays havoc with the generally smaller vessels that venture out after Dungeness crabs.

Despite the danger, fishermen say they venture out to claim the best fishing spots in the most valuable single-species fishery in Oregon, because it's still a free-for-all fishery without quotas or limits, except for number of pots.

It all provides a dramatic backdrop that isn't lost on the Deadliest Catch producers, who set the stage, so to speak, for heightening the drama. The dungie fishermen, they said, navigate a stretch of sea "that churns up massive waves and unpredictable conditions."

"Thousands of vessels and lives have been lost while battling the seas in what's considered the deadliest commercial fishery in the world," the press release stated, noting, "Newport, Oregon is one of the last remaining fishing towns along the edge of the notoriously violent 'Graveyard of the Pacific' that stretches from Oregon to British Columbia." It's a place where "generations of Dungeness crab fishermen and their families sacrifice everything that they have, including life itself, to carve an existence from the sea."

The new show will also focus on what it's like "for those left behind," exploring the lives of the families, "many of whom have called the village home for generations. Every year fishermen are lost to the turbulent waters, but the families of Newport knowingly bear that burden as they fight to keep the legacy of their town alive."

To put it in television parlance, the show must go on. And while many fishermen and their families, friends and acquaintances say they got a chuckle about living and working in a village, and one of the last remaining fishing towns, holding out against all odds.

As film crews scurried about the town, and among the docks and vessels, nature immediately heightened the drama.

Health and fishery officials in California, Oregon and Washington delayed the opening of the season for more than a month due to concerns about toxic levels of domoic acid found in crabs during initial meat quality testing. And as the season finally went into high gear, two vessels – the F/V Eagle III and the F/V Sara Jo – suffered disaster on the Coos Bay, Oregon bar. A rogue wave rolled the Eagle III on January 19, leaving one crewmember dead, two others still missing, and one who barely survived the ordeal. In a cruel ironic twist, the Sara Jo capsized a week later while venturing out to retrieve the Eagle III's crab pots. One crewmember died, the other two were injured, but were rescued by the Coast Guard.

Those incidents provided a grim backdrop and reminder that commercial fishing is rife with built-in drama – no pirates needed.

The Deadliest Catch crews recently wrapped up filming and headed home for post-production efforts. They will edit the footage and package it into five episodes to air in October or November, either overlapping slightly with the original series or immediately following it.

F/V Winona J makes her way into port on Yaquina Bay in Newport, Oregon. This vessel and another (F/V Excalibur) owned and operated by Mike Retherford and his family are among the five vessels to appear in a new Discovery Channel spinoff of Deadliest Catch featuring the at-sea and onshore hazards, heroics and heartaches of participating in Oregon's high-value and extremely dangerous Dungeness crab fishery. Photo courtesy of Retherford fishing family.

Hugh Link, executive director of the Coos Bay-based Oregon Dungeness crab Commission, said the show's production crew went out aboard vessels gathering crabs for testing during the domoic acid delay, following the crabbing process from dock to ocean to table.

Link said he's curious to see "what kind of spin" the show puts on things depicting the fishery, and any comparisons to the Alaskan crab fishery, noting that they are two different fisheries, with many similarities, especially one: danger, danger, and more danger.

"Any time you go out on the ocean in a fishing vessel, it's dangerous," Link said, noting that the commission emphasizes safety for everyone involved. Lives are lost every year off the Oregon coast, despite the best preparation and efforts of Coast Guard rescue helicopters, vessels and crews.

Deadliest Catch has emphasized the risks of crab fishing in the bering sea, and likely will do the same in its new show filmed in the "Graveyard of the Pacific."


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