Deadliest Catch’s New Normal: A Deadly Virus And Meeting Crab Quotas

The following appears in the May issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

Deadliest Catch’s Sig Hansen, captain of the crabbing boat Northwestern, says “paranoia” was a common theme for the crews of the vessels that fish the Bering Sea during a season made even more challenging due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (DISCOVERY CHANNEL)


Eight crabbing captains or co- captains – alpha personalities, all – stand around a fire on a crisp Alaska night, pondering how to reach a fleet quota while a pandemic threatens to shut down an entire industry. Maybe for good.

“Guys, we represent so much of the quota right here; if we can work together, we can cut down our time, and we can find the crab that much faster,” Capt. Sig Hansen, the ringleader of this Survivor-like plan, tells the group. “That’s the bottom line.”

As you might expect, many among the men are thinking more “a-lie-ance” than alliance.

“If you’re honest, which is a really difficult word for you,” retorts Capt. Keith Colburn, summing up the level of skepticism you can sense in this fireside chat. “You’re asking a number of boats to work together as a team?”

So goes the sense of desperation to keep the crabbing fleet afloat during a global health crisis. But that was one of many hurdles to clear for the fishing vessels chronicled on Deadliest Catch, which premiered its 17th season on April 20. Right from the first episode, the cynics that night seemed to be vindicated during an early trip on the water, with Hansen getting plenty of figurative side-eyes from his colleagues.

It’s not an easy life, even without trying to avoid mass coronavirus outbreaks and filling quotas. Hansen, at 54 and still going strong despite two previous heart attacks, is like the rest of us, trudging along despite the lockdowns and protocols of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m trying to think what’s worse: Being at home because of COVID or being on the ocean because of the water?” he said.

We chatted with Hansen about this most unorthodox crabbing season and all the challenges that went with it: The “alliance” he somehow got the other skippers to go along with – including coaxing Jonathan Hillstrand out of semiretirement to give it another go – and watching his daughter Mandy continue and get closer to piloting her own vessel someday.


Chris Cocoles Because of COVID, was this a season like no other for what you had to go through, prepare for and try to avoid infections?
Sig Hansen It was probably one of the more difficult just to get the season to begin and get us started – because we didn’t know how to start. That’s the problem with all the different protocols – we had a different protocol on our own vessel; we have protocols by the state of Alaska; there is a protocol in Dutch Harbor and for each individual town. And it was so difficult to get started on all of our backup plans for the fleet and for the processors and government. So, just getting started was a hurdle.

CC Were all of you on your boat and other boats on edge the whole time with the threat of the pandemic hovering over you and knowing that your operation could be shut down at any moment?

SH Oh, absolutely. Getting started, like I said, and then waiting for the next five, seven or 10 days even after that. You’re literally counting the days on the calendar looking for symptoms. We’re checking the crew twice daily – (checking) temperatures, the whole nine yards. Paranoia had set in without question. And then, after the first 10 (or) 12 days, we could start to relax a little more about it as far as COVID was concerned.

And then just going to the dock, there were different protocols there. I’ve got friends who were in different fisheries as well, where if they spend four months fishing up there, they never got off that little boat one time in four months. We were not even allowed to step on the dock to sign our fish tickets or to deliver sometimes. Even just to get some of the gear that we needed. It was delivered to the boats. So it was a really different experience for everybody as a whole.

CC What were the challenges you encountered since the pandemic prevented the Alaska Department of Fish and Game from doing its annual summer crab survey of the Bering Sea waters you fish?

SH No. 1: My hat’s off to the Department of Fish and Game, the state of Alaska and its government. Because it’s a federal fishery, it’s run and managed by the state. For us, the big fear is that if we don’t have a season, by regulation we have a mandatory two-year rebuilding phase. Let’s just say hypothetically that they don’t have the crab in the survey for whatever reason and we’re shut down. Then we’re shut down for a minimum of two years as a rebuilding act. That’s the way they have it written right now. And you can go out the next year and there’s 10 times the amount of crab, because we’ve seen it fluctuate.

So that was (also) a lot of paranoia without the survey. We rely on that – not just for that year, but we go out and fish to set a precedent for the next year. And we were very fortunate that the government didn’t shut us down because of the lack of surveying. We rely on that survey. That being said: Fishing without a survey was quite different as well. If you’ve been doing it for a while, you can look at those surveys and kind of get a little diagram in your head of what’s been going on. And you’ll see different changes in water temperature and things of that nature when the crab bloom and see it on the surveys when they cover the whole Bering Sea. And you can kind of tell where you’re going to start and how you want to fish. But without the survey you were literally in the dark. A lot of guys will use that as a road map.

Mandy Hansen, Relief Captain on the Northwestern, helps to stack pots.

Of his daughter Mandy, herself an aspiring captain, Sig Hansen says, “I think she’s doing great. I’m seeing more and more that she’ll go by her gut instinct… And that’s what I love to see. I wish I had that earlier in life. It took me a long time.” (DISCOVERY CHANNEL)

CC Did this season really test your patience as a longtime crab fisherman? SH Well, we had a fall season for king crab, and we jumped into our snow crab or opilio seasons. So absolutely it did. Starting out of the gate for red king crab, we really had to be careful. Normally, we go out and compete against each other; it’s bragging rights, just one of those things. If there’s a hot spot, you want it for yourself. Because we chose to work together and managed to do that, it was one for all.

And as I said, that set some precedence for the next year. (ADFG) goes by what’s called the CPUE [catch per unit effort]. And they’ll keep track of how your fishing is. They do that through their observer program, and they can tell just on the numbers that we deliver with our crab – how many pots I pulled versus the average per pot. And so it’s very important to keep that average high. When they start going by their template, they want it to kind of match. You can have a really terrible start and end up with a bang. But on average, you’re still low. You want to stay on that productive fishing and that set bar.

CC Tell us about Jon Hillstrand’s return. 

SH Getting Jonathan Hillstrand onboard was a feat in itself. He really wants to retire and we dusted him off. When I got it dusted off, it was kind of, “Look, pal; we’ve got to join forces and here’s why: The more the merrier for something like this. The more guys who are participating, the more ground gets covered, and the faster you catch crab, right?” If we don’t do well, a lot of the boats are able to lease their quota, or buy and sell quota. And Jonathan was saying, “Yeah; you’re right. If we don’t do well now and we shut down, it doesn’t matter how much crab you catch.” If you have no one to lease it to, there’s no money coming in. So we got him onboard.

CC My favorite scene of the new season was when you and all the captains were around the fire and you were hoping everyone would agree to work together. How did that go in your opinion?

SH Well. [Laughs] I think the guys were a little skittish. But years ago you were always on the radio and you always fished in groups. It was very common. But then through time, it’s always been one man for himself, but you always had these little secret groups. Now we were just having one of these secret fishing groups on a larger scale, and it was hard to communicate with a lot of guys. Nobody instinctively wants to give up the hot spots.

The Northwestern crew pulls up a pot of Opies.


CC And in certain ways, when you’re covering so much water, is it important to have some sense of teamwork to be successful?

SH You’ll partner up with guys and you can cover a lot of ground rapidly, even if you’re fishing 150 or 200 miles away from someone. You’ve got to rely on that information. That’s the biggest problem, because information needs to be honest. The oldest trick in the book is to say, “There’s all kinds of crab over here.” And by the time you take a day to pick up pots, move, go back and pick up more pots and then start your program, those crabs may have gone the day before.

And you don’t know what you’re moving to. So you really have to trust your fellow man. [Laughs] And that’s why real-time information is so important. And you have to know how to read your gear. Is that crab moving through? Are they stationary? By the time you get there are they gone? So there are some different tricks to it. An old trick (is to say), “I’ve been getting 100 average (crabs) over here,” but if that’s three-day-old news, that’s not going to work, is it? You feel better about yourself because you’re not lying. I did get 100 average over there. I just didn’t tell you when.

CC Early in the season your daughter Mandy shared some information with Saga Capt. Jake Anderson when she took the lead in the bridge and you were away. Were you a little angry with her?

SH [Laughs] Hmm. Angry?
CC Or maybe disappointed?
SH Loose lips sink ships. And so, sharing information is great, but you have to know how to do it, eloquently. I know she has a bond with Jake. They’re almost brother and sister. But that being said, you hate throwing her under the bus. But again, I’ve always had that paranoia.

There was a little anger at first, but then you say, “Wait a minute? I’m here to teach and she’s here to learn (to be acaptain) and why am I stepping on toes?” I’m a very reactive person and I’ll stick to what I think a lot of times. And I’m learning myself how to be a better father.

The skeptical skippers would include even the Northwestern’s after crew member Mandy Hansen shared some info with a fellow captain while her dad Sig was away on a coffee break. “I’ve always had that paranoia,” he admits.(DISCOVERY CHANNEL)

CC If you take off your dad’s hat for a moment, how is Mandy evolving into someone who wants to be a captain of her own boat someday?

SH I think she’s doing great. I’m seeing more and more that she’ll go by her gut instinct. It took me a long time to figure out that you have your friends, fishing partners and buddies. You become a sheep and you’re following the herd. And I’ve seen more and more – and maybe it’s because I’m onboard with her – that she’s willing to take steps and starting to do more and more on her own and following her own instinct. And if it’s right or wrong, she’s starting to do that instinctively. And that’s what I love to see. I wish I had that earlier in life. It took me a long time.

CC You’ve been doing this for a long time, but what did you learn about yourself during this most unique time in your career?

SH We always say safety first. This was a whole different ball game. It rang true. You had to have more patience. I always put safety first, but this time you had to really think about the industry as a whole. Everything was on such a large scale. But with safety, I was not only thinking about myself because of my (previous) heart attacks, and, of course, my crew, but also for the fleet as a whole. I did see everything from a broader scale. You still wanted to see everyone stay safe. But I still have the passion.

CC And when you went to visit Hillstrand, he told you he wants to retire soon and like you said, considering you’ve had heart attack scares and now gone through COVID, how difficult is this for all of you to keep on going out there? Do you have to keep that passion burning to keep heading out on the water?

SH I believe that. A lot of the guys say it’s in their blood and I get that. For me it’s also a family legacy (of fishing). But I think it’s also harder and harder. When you get older, naturally you’re thinking about your own mortality. And you get to this point where you think, “I don’t want to do this anymore, or I can’t do this anymore. Or maybe I’m not as effective as I once was, and that’s not fair to anyone else.” But at the same time, it’s pride on the line. But I think at the end of the day, it really is so rewarding. I think that’s what brings everybody back. It’s that challenge – that risk and reward. It’s an addiction. It really is.

F/V Northwestern covered in the mist of a wave.

It was indeed a challenge unlike no other on the Northwestern, and for the 54-year-old Hansen, who’s had two heart attacks, can’t help but ponder his future. But the lifestyle is something that’s not easy to quit. “I think it’s also harder and harder,” he says. “It’s an addiction. It really is.”(DISCOVERY CHANNEL)

CC That addiction has to keep you going. 

SH Absolutely. You can’t shake it. Things change at home and you’re different with your wife (June). She’s mentioned before so many times that, “I guess it must be that time (to go fish), because now you’re not the same person.” In your mind you’re not even at home. You’re thinking about what you’re going to do before you get up there. It’s a great industry and a great life. And there’s a lot on the line. That’s the way it’s always going to be. ASJ

Editor’s note: New episodes of Deadliest Catch can be seen every Tuesday night, including tonight, this month on the Discovery Channel. Get more information at deadliest-catch.