20 Seasons of Deadliest Catch

Article written for ew.com by Ashley Boucher

Before I arrived in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, I was warned plenty about getting seasick. I was not, however, warned about the potential for nausea from something else entirely – a dead herring in my mouth.

And yet here I find myself decked out in boots and a bright yellow bib while holding the frozen fish with a rubber glove as the crewmen of Captain Keith Colburn’s Wizard, the massive fishing boat made recognizable in households across the world by The Deadliest Catch, count down from three. My goal when they hit “one” is to rip its head clean off… with my teeth. Keith has assured me that I should be grateful the herring is frozen – otherwise, I’d have blood dripping down my chin – but it’s a little tougher than I expected (and honestly, it doesn’t taste too bad; kind of reminds me of eating tinned fish). I’m successful in my quest, though the rip isn’t quite as clean as Keith would like. Naturally, he has to show me how it’s done himself, to cheers from the crew.

I’m here in Captain’s Bay on a cold (but thankfully dry) January morning among towers and towers of crab pots to celebrate the series’ 20th anniversary (season 20 premieres June 11 on Discovery Channel) by learning firsthand what it takes to be a deckhand on an Alaskan crabbing vessel. So for two days, I’m getting put through the paces as a greenhorn, a.k.a. the freshest meat onboard. Hence the herring, every greenhorn’s rite of passage on the Wizard.

For the past two decades since it debuted on April 12, 2005, The Deadliest Catch has taken viewers inside what’s touted as the deadliest job on Earth: crab fishing in the Bering Sea. Almost every channel surfer has seen at least an episode, and many credit the series with launching the “dirty jobs” genre of reality TV.

While much of the series’ format has remained the same, a lot has changed since Keith arrived in Dutch Harbor with nothing but a backpack nearly 40 years ago. “The biggest thing is, it used to be just a wide-open derby, and then it went to a quota base system,” he says as we sit in the Wizard’s control room. He’s talking about the Alaskan crab industry’s switch in 2005 (just after the Deadliest Catch’s inaugural season). “There were too many boats, too many fatalities” in the derby, which led to more regulations when it comes to fishing in the Bering Sea. Under the derby, boats were essentially in a free-for-all to catch as much as they could during a small fishing window. Under the quota system, boats are given a maximum they’re allowed to catch within a longer time frame.

A low crab population caused fisheries to close for two years. (Deadliest Catch fans will know this well, and remember that it led Sig Hansen to Norway for a time to see if he could have better luck there.) When crab fisheries reopened in 2023, regulations included a caveat: Boats were allowed to catch more crab if another boat didn’t meet its quota – rules reminiscent of the old derby days. “That’s really unique about this year,” showrunner Arom Starr-Paul jumps in from across the room while I’m sitting with Keith. “It’s like season 1 again.”

Or as Keith puts it, “The race for crab is back.”


Changing tack

The next day, I’m sitting in the bridge of Sig Hansen’s Northwestern, attempting to steer the 125-foot vessel out of Captain’s Bay. Sig already scolded me for sitting cross-legged in the captain’s seat (“Don’t embarrass me. Spread ’em.”), and corrected my terminology (“You run a boat; you drive a car.”). Now, he looks at me skeptically. “You don’t want to hit that dock, right?”

After I successfully maneuver into more open waters — avoiding the dock and an otter floating nearby — Sig ushers me out on deck, where a handful of his crewmen gamely teach me how to toss the anchor (“You fish with line, not rope,” by the way. According to Sig, rope is for cowboys), throw a pot, pick up a pot, and even operate the crane — which is terrifying enough on this beautiful bluebird day, even as Sig reminds me that usually I’d have waves, wind, and rain to contend with, too.

Like Keith, as I ask Sig about the glory days of crabbing back in the ‘80s, he can’t help but note the industry’s changes. “I see that there’s still a future, but a more controlled future,” Sig tells me as we sail out of the harbor, surrounded by the snow-covered mountains that dot the Aleutian Islands. “[The] industry is getting smaller. They’re streamlining it more… What we had with the derby days and the amount of people, you’ll never see that again. It’s less boats that are fishing the same amount of crab.”

Starr-Paul says the “primal fear and primal danger” keep viewers hooked, but it’s also the captains, deckhands, and their families that reel fans in. “We’ve been able to get really deep into characters’ lives and create relationships with the audience in ways that I don’t know that other shows have had a chance to do,” Joe Boyle, SVP Production and Development, Discovery Channel, tells me.

While longtime fan-favorites like Sig and Keith are mainstays on the show, several fresh faces were introduced in season 19, including Sophia “Bob” Nielsen, Jacob Hutchins, and Jack Bunnell, who will all be featured again in season 20. “The future of the show, to me, is continuing to tell the story of the next generation,” Starr-Paul says.

Dead Ahead

Back on the Northwestern, the sun’s reflection on the water is blinding, and it’s so beautiful it almost makes you forget about the biting cold. After we’ve trudged inside once more so Sig can take over running the boat, the captain echoes Starr-Paul. “I want my daughter, I want my grandkids to do this,” he says. But you won’t be able to keep Sig off the water. “I think I’ll always go,” he adds before recalling that very first season. “When we first did it the first year, we didn’t know that this was going to be a thing. I was just happy to participate because it was showing the world what we were doing.”

Twenty years later, and the world isn’t only aware of what they’re doing, but invested. And season 20 will deliver, Starr-Paul promises fans. “They’re going to see danger on the water that they haven’t seen in probably 10 years,” he teases, adding that viewers will be “blown away” by this season’s action. “I don’t think we’ve ever had some of the events that we’ve had this past fall.”

A greenhorn journalist decapitating a frozen herring is just the beginning.

The Deadliest Catch season 20 drops Tuesday, June 11, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Discovery Channel, and will then be available to stream on Max.