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Deadliest Catch: How TV Warps Our Understanding of the World

deadliest catch

I don’t watch a lot of reality TV. Polly and I watch a few shows together: Bar Rescue, Restaurant Impossible, and The Voice. I also watch Deadliest Catch — my favorite reality program. For readers not familiar with Deadliest Catch:

Deadliest Catch is an American reality television series that premiered on the Discovery Channel on April 12, 2005. The show follows crab fishermen aboard fishing vessels in the Bering Sea during the Alaskan king crab and snow crab fishing seasons. The base of operations for the fishing fleet is the Aleutian Islands port of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Produced for the Discovery Channel, the show’s title is derived from the inherent high risk of injury or death associated with this line of work.


The series follows a fisherman’s life on the Bering Sea aboard various crab fishing boats during two of the crab fishing seasons, the October king crab season and the January opilio crab season. The show emphasizes the dangers on deck to the fishermen and camera crews as they duck heavy crab pots swinging into position, maneuver hundreds of pounds of crab across a deck strewn with hazards, and lean over the rails to position pots for launch or retrieval, while gale-force winds and high waves lash the deck constantly.

Each episode focuses on a story, situation, or theme that occurs on one or more boats. In contrast, side stories delve into the backgrounds and activities of one or two crew members, particularly the “greenhorns” (rookie crew members) on several boats. The fleet’s captains are featured prominently, highlighting their camaraderie with their fellow captains and relationships with their crews, as well as their competition with other boats in the hunt for crab.

Deadliest Catch, as with all reality shows, is an admixture of “reality” and scripted TV. This season, producers have seized on American hatred for Russia. Russian boats are portrayed as illegal interlopers who fish in OUR waters and steal OUR crab; “our” being the good ole Red-White-and Blue; the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Here’s the problem with this narrative, it’s untrue. The Russian boats aren’t fishing illegally; they have just as much right to fish in Arctic waters as do Americans. Before I write further on this subject, I want to define several terms that are relevant to this discussion.

Territorial waters:

Territorial sea, as defined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is a belt of coastal waters extending at most 12 nautical miles (22 km; 14 mi) from the baseline (usually the mean low-water mark) of a coastal state. The territorial sea is regarded as the sovereign territory of the state, although foreign ships (military and civilian) are allowed innocent passage through it, or transit passage for straits; this sovereignty also extends to the airspace over and seabed below. Adjustment of these boundaries is called, in international law, maritime delimitation.

A state’s territorial sea extends up to 12 nmi (22 km; 14 mi) from its baseline. If this would overlap with another state’s territorial sea, the border is taken as the median point between the states’ baselines, unless the states in question agree otherwise. A state can also choose to claim a smaller territorial sea.

Contiguous Zone:

The contiguous zone is a band of water extending farther from the outer edge of the territorial sea to up to 24 nautical miles (44.4 km; 27.6 mi) from the baseline, within which a state can exert limited control for the purpose of preventing or punishing “infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations within its territory or territorial sea”. This will typically be 12 nautical miles (22 km; 14 mi) wide, but could be more (if a state has chosen to claim a territorial sea of less than 12 nautical miles), or less, if it would otherwise overlap with another state’s contiguous zone. However, unlike the territorial sea, there is no standard rule for resolving such conflicts and the states in question must negotiate their own compromise. The United States invoked a contiguous zone out to 24 nmi from the baseline on 29 September 1999.

Exclusive Economic Zone:

An exclusive economic zone extends from the baseline to a maximum of 200 nautical miles (370.4 km; 230.2 mi), thus it includes the contiguous zone. A coastal nation has control of all economic resources within its exclusive economic zone, including fishing, mining, oil exploration, and any pollution of those resources. However, it cannot prohibit passage or loitering above, on, or under the surface of the sea that is in compliance with the laws and regulations adopted by the coastal State in accordance with the provisions of the UN Convention, within that portion of its exclusive economic zone beyond its territorial sea. Before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, coastal nations arbitrarily extended their territorial waters in an effort to control activities which are now regulated by the exclusive economic zone, such as offshore oil exploration or fishing rights (see Cod Wars). Indeed, the exclusive economic zone is still popularly, though erroneously, called a coastal nation’s territorial waters.

Based on the information above from Wikipedia, the United States controls and governs coastal waters up to twelve nautical miles (fourteen miles). The United States also has economic control over two hundred nautical miles from its coasts.

Any seas beyond the exclusive economic zone are considered international waters:

The terms international waters or transboundary waters apply where any of the following types of bodies of water (or their drainage basins) transcend international boundaries: oceans, large marine ecosystems, enclosed or semi-enclosed regional seas and estuaries, rivers, lakes, groundwater systems (aquifers), and wetlands.

“International waters” is not a defined term in international law. It is an informal term, which sometimes refers to waters beyond the “territorial sea” of any country. In other words, “international waters” is sometimes used as an informal synonym for the more formal term high seas or, in Latin, mare liberum (meaning free sea).

International waters (high seas) do not belong to any state’s jurisdiction, known under the doctrine of ‘mare liberum’. States have the right to fishing, navigation, overflight, laying cables and pipelines, as well as scientific research.

The Convention on the High Seas, signed in 1958, which has 63 signatories, defined “high seas” to mean “all parts of the sea that are not included in the territorial sea or in the internal waters of a State” and where “no State may validly purport to subject any part of them to its sovereignty.” The Convention on the High Seas was used as a foundation for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), signed in 1982, which recognized exclusive economic zones extending 200 nautical miles (230 mi; 370 km) from the baseline, where coastal states have sovereign rights to the water column and sea floor as well as the natural resources found there.

The high seas make up 50% of the surface area of the planet and cover over two-thirds of the ocean.

Most of the fishing done by the boats on Deadliest Catch takes place in international waters. Russian fishermen are not invading American waters. They have just as much right to fish these waters as the flag-waving American captains do. Deadliest Catch and the Discovery Channel are portraying a false narrative; one meant to fuel American hatred for Russia. Whatever is good for ratings, right?

I watch a lot of TV. I wish Deadliest Catch were the exception to the rule, but it’s not. Rarely does a night go by when I don’t watch one or more programs that promote distortions of reality. While I am able to discern the difference between agenda-driven TV (both from the left and the right) and reality, far too many Americans think what they see on their TVs is true. It’s not, and I wish the news media would do a better job of calling out these distortions of the real world. Shows such as Blue Bloods and Law and Order, in particular, present a distorted view of crime, prison, and law enforcement. CSI-Las Vegas does the same. And don’t get me started with the FBI and NCIS programs. While I find the shows entertaining, and I religiously watch them, I see through their portrayals of our security-industrial complex. Sadly, these shows have the air of propaganda that’s meant to portray the United States as a noble people who only want what’s best for the world.

TV is considered a great escape. However, when our nightly escape into the worlds crafted by TV writers, producers, and actors corrupts reality and our understanding of the world, we are on dangerous ground. Facts and truth matter, even when fishing for king crab.


Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Neil Rickert

    I watch very little TV.

    If the TV is when I’m eating, then I watch (usually the news).

    I used to watch the news, back in the Walter Cronkite days. But TV news has greatly deteriorated since then. I prefer to get my news online or on radio.

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    One of my favorite ageing rock stars has done some reality tv shows, and I admire his honesty: “There is nothing real in reality tv.” When the show gets boring, he states, the production staff introduce “conflicts” to keep it interesting. If the stars are not interested in fighting, they will trick or manipulate them into a conflict. I have no doubt the producers of Deadliest Catch are doing some manipulation behind the scenes.
    TV has always been unrealistic. From the perfect families of the 50’s to the spy shows of the 60’s to the Westerns of Hollywood, it’s all meant to be entertaining, not educational. The problem is, too many people refuse to grow up and realize tv isn’t real most of the time. Too many prefer to get their education from sitcoms, dramas, and now, reality tv. Why bust your brain reading a book, taking classes, attending lectures, and searching for reliable sources when Hollywood will educate you with entertainment?

  3. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    I taught in a college where one of the most popular programs was Criminal Justice. Some actually told me they enrolled in the program because of shows like “Law and Order” and the CSI franchise.

    At times,I had to be a de facto advisor and tell students what, apparently their advisors and others hadn’t told them: They weren’t going to become forensic investigators or even get promoted in the NYPD with a certificate or even an undergraduate degree in CJ. They would need an advanced degree, I explained, and if they wanted to be pathologists or coroners, they probably would need a PhD in chemistry or some related area of science—or to become an MD.

    Apparently, someone told a Dean. She called me into her office and very sternly warned me against “discouraging “ students. I countered that I was doing my job as a faculty member: I was telling my students the truth. She then threatened to discipline me for “insubordination “ if I continued to “distress” my students. In reality, I think, she was “distressed” that I was (at least, in her mind) threatening to suppress enrollment.

    At the other end of the spectrum, I had a very bright student who already understood what I was telling those students: She had done an internship. I had no doubt that she could have done what she needed to do in order to become a forensic pathologist. (For one thing, she was much better at math and science than I ever could be.) But, she abruptly changed her major—to business management . I asked her why.

    “I’m not hot enough,” she lamented.

    Now where else could she have gotten such notion but one of those shows—or some friend or relative whose knowledge of law, law enforcement and criminal justice comes from those shows.

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    i watch practically no TV. i call it the “goddam noisy box”. on our home WIFI network, the TV is called “hypnotic device”. when i am sick, sometimes, i watch DVDs of old TV shows like Star Trek, M.A.S.H. or Taxi, but the DVDs don’t have commercials, and i can pause it when i want to. my wife watches A LOT more TV than i do, but she uses it as a noise buffer while she’s doing other things (which i do not understand, at all), like working on the computer, or cooking. my wife is attracted to what i call “stress TV”: drama about medical stuff, or “true crime” shows about serial killers. but she’ll “watch” anything, if she’s doing something else, in reality. i have a tendency to get “sucked in” to the TV, if i’m not paying attention, and, if i am not paying attention, i can (and have) spent hours i should be doing other things, watching the “goddam noisy box”.

  5. Avatar

    I love a well-crafted story, but it’s important to discern fiction from reality. One great thing I enjoy about Netflix is having access to shows produced in other countries like Israel, Sweden, Germany, S. Korea, Belgium, etc. I like getting their view on the world. One Swedish show had a character who said that Sweden was the most racist country on earth, then she amended it to the US is the most racist and Sweden was 2nd most racist. Anyway, shows are stories meant for entertainment.

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Bruce Gerencser