06.10.10

Can Deadliest Catch Help the Oil Spill?

Deadliest Catch has become an unlikely political platform for the disaster in the Gulf. Nicole LaPorte talks to Captain Keith about peanut-butter-colored tar and a shrimpers’ fundraiser.

Until now, Deadliest Catch was either the beloved television show that you couldn’t stop watching, or the most annoying television show that you couldn’t get someone else to stop watching, a phenomenon that even made it into Sex and the City 2: Big’s obsession with watching Deadliest Catch in bed drives Carrie mad.

The Discovery Channel reality series—commercial crab fishermen off the coast of Alaska battle the high and hostile seas—might seem like a niche show. But with the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, it has gained a much more profound cultural currency, one that even Ms. Bradshaw would have to respect.

“We’re not down here to create a spectacle,” Captain Keith Colburn said. “We’re down here to, one, film a show. But, two, while we’re here, we’ll try and step up and do anything we can for the local community.”

With oil gushing into one of the most precious and abundant fisheries in the world, Deadliest Catch has been thrust into the political limelight, a role it is embracing with characteristic, come-hell-or-high-water gusto.

Video screenshot

This season, Deadliest Catch will honor the late Captain Phil Harris, who died in February of a stroke.

This week, cast and crew are in New Orleans taping episodes of After the Catch, the 5-episode companion piece to Deadliest Catch that airs toward the end of a season and features interviews with the show’s stars and behind-the-scenes footage.

This year’s show, which debuts on June 15th, has, as it were, a catch: It will expand its focus to the plight of local fishermen in Louisiana, who have been taking Deadliest Catch fishermen out with them to tour the Gulf. Along with members of the Coast Guard, the Louisiana fishermen will appear on the show to talk about the effects of the spill.

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Off-camera, too, Deadliest Catch is taking a stand. Earlier this week, the show hosted a fundraiser for Louisiana shrimpers in Plaquemines Parish, a region that’s been directly hit by the spill, and the show’s stars have become overnight activists, appearing on seeming every news show from CNN to Hardball with Chris Matthews to talk about the fight to save the Gulf.

Not that they see themselves as political pundits. “We’re not down here to create a spectacle,” Keith Colburn, captain of the Wizard, said over the phone from New Orleans, where he’d just finished a marathon taping session. “We’re down here to, one, film a show. But, two, while we’re here, we’ll try and step up and do anything we can for the local community.”

Colburn said the decision to film in New Orleans was coincidental and had been made months before the Deepwater Horizon oilrig went down. The city was chosen partly because of its rich fishing community, but also as a fitting place to honor Phil Harris, the raspy-voiced, heavily tattooed captain of the Cornelia Marie, who passed way in February after suffering a stroke.

The Crescent City “is a great town to pay tribute to someone who was a larger-than-life figure and one of the hearts and souls of the TV show,” Colburn said.

Colburn and his co-stars may not be out to create a spectacle but they are certainly unequivocal in their message, when they talk about what they have seen.

“We were in Plaquemines Parish, 50 miles from the spill, the local fishermen took us out, and what we found was horrific,” Colburn said. “There were miles and miles of boom laid out, and everywhere we looked, there were 10 to 15 feet of just nasty, goopy soup and peanut-butter-colored tar… all over everything. Plus there was a secondary sheen on the water that was more viscous. It’s devastating… As we were going out, we were seeing fish jumping, seeing pelicans sitting on pylons. Their environment is just collapsing and they’re not even aware of it.”

The correlation between crab fishing in the icy waters of the Bering Sea and casting for redfish in the slow, burning heat of the Gulf of Mexico may not be obvious, but Colburn said that fishermen around the globe exist in a brotherhood and that one fisherman’s plight is every fisherman’s plight.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fisherman based on the East Coast, the Gulf, out West, or even Australia,” Colburn said. “We have a common bond. We all fish for a living, and we all have a thread that holds us together as fishermen, that connects us to the water and the environment. We all harvest the bounty of the sea. So for something like this to happen, we want to do everything we can to support these guys.”

The connection is particularly strong for Colburn, who experienced the Exxon Valdez spill back in 1989. “That was 11 million gallons. We’re already looking at, we don’t know, but based on the estimates, 40 million gallons. So it’s already four times the size of that spill. And it’s insidious. We don’t know how bad it is.”

On a lighter note, Colburn admitted he was enjoying his celebrity status walking around New Orleans. “It’s crazy. When you get into a fishing community, pretty much everyone on the street is a fan of the show. It’s not just fishermen… it’s females as well, and kids love it. It’s really crazy. It’s like, mom doesn’t want to watch the game, dad doesn’t want to watch Oprah, but they all want to watch Deadliest.”

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.

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