Fishing may be the world’s second oldest profession, but the industry is about as visible as a quiet cousin at a family reunion. Unassuming, keeping to itself, it is largely ignored in talk about work and the economy. All of which belies its oddly large footprint in reality TV.
Some of these “fishing industry” shows look at huge, highly capitalized and often nationalized factory fishing fleets. But most usually focus on much smaller, community and family-based single-owner boat crews that are part of a local fleet. That’s what we see in Discovery/Original Productions’s Deadliest Catch, which has long been the gorilla in the room. On the other end of the spectrum lies a series showcasing practices closer to sport-fishing, National Geographic’s Wicked Tuna. In between areSwords: Life on the Line and Lobstermen (in various iterations asLobstermen: Jeopardy at Sea, Lobster Wars, Lobstermen: Deadliest Catch in the UK), the British series Trawlermen, and various others. Most of these shows rely on the same basic motifs: dangerous seas, seafood as hidden treasure, competition between boats.
All of which raises two questions: 1) why are fishing shows so popular? and 2) how well do they portray their subject and its workers? One answer actually addresses both: they do a pretty good job of portraying individuals struggling with a job that is not only among the oldest but also the most dangerous. Yet that is also why this genre is itself a bit dangerous. Bringing the working world of the fishing industry to the general public performs a useful service. Doing so by emphasizing individualistic drama while soft-peddling the industry’s complex socioeconomic structures does not.
The push for drama is embodied in Discovery Channel’s description of its most long-lived and popular show, Deadliest Catch:
It’s the deadliest job on earth: crab fishing off the Alaska coast on the icy Bering Sea, home of the most violent waters on earth. During each crabbing season, a handful of adventurers will battle Arctic weather, brutal waves, and a ticking clock for a chance at big money in this modern day gold rush. Working around the clock, and often going days without sleep, this unique breed of men, part adventurer part fisherman, will set out upon an unforgettable odyssey.
As the last word suggests, this series is ‘epic,’ with all the sociocultural mythos attending it. Central to that mythos? Western masculinity and its time-honored themes: competition, violence, death.
This emphasis underpins a format that Discovery has recreated in its East Coast variation, Lobstermen. Even the opening language follows the formula: “The North Atlantic Ocean, one of the most treacherous regions of the open seas. Here a handful of brave men search for New England’s great-clawed beast: lobster.” Unfortunately, Lobstermen suffers in comparison, given its smaller boats, smaller crews, smaller traps, and smaller catch. It’s difficult not to smile at the hype: “great clawed beast”? Clearly, size matters.
The basic structures and themes appear even in a more divergent example, Swords: Life on the Line, which includes racially diverse crews and female captain Linda Greenlaw (herself an audience draw, being well-known from Sebastian Junger’s non-fiction drama Perfect Storm as well as her own The Hungry Ocean). But while such factors temper the show’s attachment to Anglo masculinity, they do not eliminate it.
To be fair, most of these series actually do manage to provide brief insights into larger systemic structures affecting fishing-industry workers. Much of the emphasis is on the captains who, even if they do not own their boats, are both management and labor. And the pay scale reflects the on-board hierarchy, with the value of labor decreasing from captain to first mate, and so on down the line. At the same time, captains face their own structural difficulties within a competitive capitalist system. Even if they own their boats, many captains are effectively “boat-poor” and regularly on the edge of financial and its related psychological collapse.
To the shows’ credit, they regularly highlight the financial risks of the industry, and they show how the larger economic structures firmly anchor most crew members and even many captains – especially younger ones — within the precariat class. Their economic vulnerability is exacerbated by the capital-intensive nature of industrial fishing. Simply going out requires a large investment to purchase bait, fuel, and equipment. Such overhead literally rests on the key means of production: a vessel that is either a major investment for a captain — equal to a home — or the property of an absentee boat-owner. While the crew doesn’t contribute to these initial investments, their labor, like the captain’s, accrues no personal value until all of the costs of the trip are covered. Only then will they be paid, in the form of a share of the catch based on their status in crew hierarchy.
As with all forms of fishing, that catch is hardly guaranteed, in part because access to the best grounds are regularly limited. Among lobstermen, for example, agreements over where a boat’s lobster traps can be laid are often well-established and regularly honored among captains and larger communities. But even if a boat has access to good grounds, they must compete with other fisheries, including trawlers in search of fin-fish, scallops, and other marketable products. When these agreements are broached and communities themselves struggle to re-establish them, external regulators in the form of governmental agencies appear on the scene, making the system even more complex.
Unfortunately for the shows, all these economic complexities and forms of regulation also make fishing less dramatic than the risk-taking and rivalries amongst individual adventurers that make this type of reality TV engaging. So the shows present these banal complexities—capital investments, negotiated agreements, traditional hierarchies as more popular forms of competition: sport and games. An easy example can be seen in Wicked Tuna’sspin-off, Wicked Tuna: Outer Banks, originally and blatantly titled Wicked Tuna: North vs. South.
That transformation is further individualized and deepened with Oedipal themes, often through story lines about the younger generation taking over from ‘aging’ captains. For example, in an early episode of Wicked Tuna, the ‘outsider boat’ Pin Wheel, captained by the juvenile and aggressive Captain Tyler McLaughlin, is pitted against Tuna.Com, led by the established and traditional Captain Dave Carraro, a pattern echoed in each of these shows. All these internal dramas are usually ‘resolved’ through the evidence of masculine power embodied in a successful catch.
Unfortunately, that narrative resolution does not ensure that the crew will be paid. Catching fish is only the first step; the catch must then be sold, and this puts fishers at the mercy of wholesalers, who set prices. This is regularly noted in the series, if only for dramatic effect, as in an episode of Lobstermen.Captain Joel Hovanesian’s Excalibur, a dragger (trawler) out of Port Judith, RI, is having no luck pursuing haddock, a high-value food fish in the restaurant and home-dining market. So Hovanesian decides to go after mackerel, whose US market is mainly as bait fish and priced accordingly. The risk is rewarded with a large, clean catch, a decent price at the dock, and subsequent paychecks. But the very next day, an even larger catch is met with limited interest from wholesalers, and Hovanesian has to scramble for an alternative buyer. Eventually, he must settle for a price approximately half that earned the day before. That, in turn, means that the same labor of captain and crew is worth about half what it was the day before.
These economic vagaries are endemic in a market-driven economy, and to the shows’ credit, they are incorporated into the overall drama. But again, they arise as a component of individual competition–a function of effort, risk, and luck rather than an ingrained deficiency of the fishing industry. That is, of course, the nature of dramatic story-telling: establish representative figures, place them in situations where tension arises, and resolve the tension positively or negatively.
Of course, reality television succeeds by keeping audiences coming back and generating ad revenue. But while breaking seas and howling winds, risk and personal luck are cinematically justifiable, they also elide the less dramatic but very real struggle of crews with the fishing industry’s practices. Which raises another question: how should we weigh this erasure against the positives of raising the profile of fishing-industry labor? In the end, that’s not an easy question to answer. But we can always hope there’s no such thing as bad advertising.
James V. Catano
James V. Catano is producer/director of Enduring Legacy: Louisiana’s Croatian Americans and author of Ragged Dicks: Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man. He is Professor Emeritus of English and Screen Arts at Louisiana State University.