Reasons Why Deadliest Catch Is Fake

"Deadliest Catch" has been lauded for being an honest look into one of the most dangerous professions in the world, and for putting a whole new perspective on those all-you-can-eat crab legs many take for granted.

Alaskan crab fishing is grueling, and occasionally deadly work, and the show gives bite-sized, hour-long glimpses into what it takes to put crab on tables and buffets thousands of miles from where they're plucked from the ocean's unforgiving tempest. But how accurate is it?

Everyone's familiar with the idea of movie magic, and it's hard to take anything that appears on the big or small screen at face value. It's a given that not everything makes it to the screen, especially with a show like "Deadliest Catch." Here's some food for thought: In an interview with Pro Video Coalition, editor Joe Mikan shared the fact that every season, they have around 25,000 hours of raw footage that gets assembled into the show ... so yes, things are going to get left out. But how much can viewers believe about what they do see? Even though it's marketed as an honest look at the fishing industry, it turns out that there have been questions raised, statements made, and even photos leaked that suggest there's at least a bit of movie magic going on here.

Incidents have been combined to make things more dramatic

Questions about the authenticity of "Deadliest Catch" have been circulating for a long time, and way back in the fourth season, a closer look at the season premiere revealed some things had apparently been deliberately remixed to make for a nail-biting incident that didn't really happen as it was presented.

The opener showed fan favorite fishing boat the Wizard floundering in a massive storm: Huge waves coupled with a leak seemed to suggest that the ship was in immediate danger of sinking. However, a closer look at the series of events revealed that the footage of massive waves rocking the boat were filmed in October, a month after the Wizard's crew scrambled to fix the leak.

It was such a big deal that Discovery's president, John Ford, gave an official statement (via The Hollywood Reporter). According to him, that scene seen in previews was "a rough draft that was rejected," although it did appear in the regular show. He explained: "The Wizard was struck by a big wave, and that wave caused the leak you see in the show. The thing we didn't have on camera was the actual wave that struck the Wizard. That was shot at a separate time on the same journey and was an insert edit from the show. We did that for the story continuity because we didn't have a boat-to-boat shot." He clarified: "Nothing is made up and nothing needs to be made up."

What's a pickup shot?

When Discovery president and general manager John Ford addressed accusations that season four of "Deadliest Catch" fudged the truth a bit by combining footage of a wave and of a dangerous leak when that footage was recorded weeks apart, he clarified in a statement (via The Hollywood Reporter): "For certain things, we do pickup shots for continuity. If the camera didn't run properly when the captain was boarding the boat, they have the captain back up and board the boat again."

So, what exactly are pickup shots? They're usually reshoots that are done after the main filming and can be necessary for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, they're used to fill in gaps in the story, to help one shot flow more seamlessly into another, and sometimes, they're needed for technical reasons. If a shot was out of focus, they might need to shoot it again — and sometimes, usable footage might get lost or corrupted. They're all legit reasons to need pickup shots, which means that what audiences are seeing isn't necessarily exactly what happened ... but according to Discovery, that doesn't mean they're lying about anything.

And pickup shots can be a big deal. In 2010, Discovery had settled a lawsuit with the Hillstrand brothers (Jonathan Hillstrand pictured). The network claimed that they had violated their contract by not participating in a planned two-hour special, but also not returning to film a series of pickup shots. How often these filler shots are used remains unclear.

Jack Bunnell says some captains purposefully make things interesting

In 2022, The Seattle Times spoke with Jack Bunnell (pictured) about filming "Deadliest Catch," his switch between crab boats, and the truth of what makes it on the screen. He had some pretty serious accusations to make, starting with the fact that he said there are some captains on the show who deliberately do things to make life on a crab boat more interesting for the cameras.

Bunnell claimed longtime captain Jake Anderson would deliberately guide his boat into waves to make the biggest, showiest impact. That, he said, was ultimately dangerous, and he'd gotten hurt on board the ship. Bunnell also claimed that he pushed the crew beyond their limits and ordered them to set up crab pots on the deck in a way that's not necessarily the safest ... all for show. "You got to make it exciting, somehow," he explained. "What we do, hauling pots 24 hours a day, is boring."

Anderson denied ever doing any such thing, and it's important to stress just how serious accusations that a captain would deliberately put their crew at risk are. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, not only is the fishing industry inherently dangerous, but Alaskan crab fishing has among the highest instances of injuries and fatalities. Weather, long hours of darkness, brutal winds, and unpredictable seas all make for potentially deadly conditions, and suggesting a captain makes them more dangerous by showing off for the cameras is quite the accusation.

Getting weather right is hard

Weather is unpredictable in the most temperate of places, and in the Bering Sea? Things can get dicey at the drop of a hat, and while weather forecasts might do their best, they're not perfect. For "Deadliest Catch," capturing the weather that boats, captains, and crews are dealing with is tough. When Andy Hillstrand sat down to talk to Dockwalk, they asked him if the cameras were able to really get the feeling of bad weather. "A little bit," he said, "it's always worse than whatever they can capture, but they get close, though."

There's a flip side to that, too, and it was highlighted in a 2022 post that made the rounds on Facebook. The photo showed "Deadliest Catch" mainstay Sig Hansen walking out of Dutch Harbor's airport, sunny, clear blue skies overhead ... while crews stood by to carefully aim the spray of a firehose to make it look like he was walking out into a torrential downpour.

As The Seattle Times highlighted, the photo didn't just make the rounds on social media, it was also circulated through other crab boat captains and crews. While some pointed to the photo as evidence that they were better off not being on the show and being asked to perform for the cameras, Discovery issued a statement saying that it was an exception, not the norm. Creative filming, they said, was done on "very rare occasions... [to] mirror the real-life conditions" crews had to work through.

The show glosses over the realities of quotas, size, and funding

The fishing boats of "Deadliest Catch" aren't really shown sitting next to each other, so it's easy to assume that they're all kind of about the same size. They're not — and that means there are some big things that get left out of the show. For starters, let's take the Wizard. That's one of the larger boats, clocking in at about 151 feet long. Now, compare that to the Lisa Marie: She's just 78 feet long. Others hover in between those. The Time Bandit, for example, is 98 feet long.

Size impacts quotas, and in 2012, CNN took a look at the way quotas were handed out. In a nutshell, the bigger the boat, the bigger the quota. They also found that the smaller boats were finding it more economical to sell their quotas to the bigger ones, and that was a big deal for one simple reason: The bigger the boat, the safer they were.

So, why are there still crews out in the smaller boats? Watch the show, and it seems as though captains have no choice but to head out, but in reality, they could just sell their quota. The Seattle Times suggests they opt not to because Discovery pays out enough to make it more lucrative to take the risks to appear on the show, instead of taking the payout and letting bigger (and safer) boats do the heavy lifting. Just how much they pay, the outlet adds, is information that's kept tightly under wraps.

Elliott Neese has had some things to say

Elliott Neese (pictured) was on "Deadliest Catch" from 2011 to 2015, and while he left the show in order to focus on dealing with his addiction issues, he was still officially the owner of the Saga into at least 2019. Neese was vague about his future with the show at the time he left but said that even if he wasn't heavily featured, the Saga would be — although he also hinted at the fact that there was possibly more going on behind the scenes than what was shown on-camera.

Neese told Newswire, "I have my boat out and a crew will be on it. I won't be on it and neither will my dad. He basically was on there to hang out with me. A TV captain will be on the show — Jake Anderson. The real captain won't be seen on the show."

Real captain? Discovery still officially lists Jake Anderson as the captain of the Saga as of 2023, and it's unclear just what Neese meant about a "TV captain." He did, however, make additional comments about how events on "Deadliest Catch" might not line up with reality, saying that his personality was one that didn't play for the camera the way some might hope. "I don't appease the camera, and maybe that doesn't always come off right," he told Boating Magazine in 2014 (via Newswire). He added: "But remember, reality TV isn't real. It's entertainment, that's it."

Some captains have commented on Deadliest Catch content

Reality television generally falls into the "unscripted" category, but according to a few captains featured on "Deadliest Catch," it may not be as entirely unscripted and unplanned as it might seem at a glance. Details are understandably scarce — no one's going to be saying too much to imply that what ends up on screens is carefully crafted, after all — but in 2023, boat captain Linda Greenlaw (pictured) suggested that "Deadliest Catch" was different from her previous television experience in a big way.

She told Spectrum News, "Filming of 'Deadliest Catch' was more scripted than 'Swords: Life on the Line.' Hey, 19 seasons in, the show has to be more than catching crabs or not! The popularity of the show speaks for itself."

Northwestern captain Sig Hansen has also hinted at the fact that filming follows a behind-the-scenes outline. In a conversation with New Zealand's The Fishing Website, Hansen was asked if the weather in the Bering Sea was always as bad as it looked, or if it was edited to look that way. He replied, "I do think they want to show the dramatic side. They shoot thousands of hours of footage, and I can understand that they are trying to put a story-board together and make it fit. Everything that they film is accurate, but you will see a lot more of the foul weather as opposed to the calm days; I suppose that's what sells, but the bad weather is a reality."

Sound? It's often manufactured sound effects

In 2020, the editors of "Deadliest Catch" sat down with the Pro Video Coalition to provide an in-depth look at what went on when filming wrapped and footage was sent to the production team. The finished product might look like it was pretty straightforward, but that's far from the truth — especially, they shared, when it comes to sound.

Video is only a part of the show. Listen to it without the sound on and it'll quickly become clear just how different it is, and here's the thing: A lot of what makes it into the final show isn't precisely real. Editor Joe Mikan explained, "A lot of times the nat sound is unusable due to conditions or mikes fail because it gets so cold and icy out there. And in that case, we will use sound effects, and voila! You can easily fill up your timeline trying to create the sense of realism of what it actually sounds like out there."

He continued, explaining that using sounds other than what was actually recorded on the boat creates a more accurate experience, and he admits that "can be a little counter-intuitive," but filming and recording in extreme temperatures in the face of equipment failure or malfunction can leave them with little choice. Editor Alexandra Moore agreed, saying that their library of sound effects was a powerful tool in their arsenal: "We can use sound effects like that to be just as scary as a 20-foot wave."

They gloss over fines and penalties

"Deadliest Catch" shows captains keeping track of counts and deckhands sorting through the crab that are pulled up from the depths, but that's not the end of the story — and it turns out that what doesn't really get mentioned is that some of the captains have gotten tagged with fines and penalties. In 2008, captain Richard Quashnick was cited for having a small percentage of undersized crab, and that's not unusual. Elliott Neese was tagged by authorities twice: In 2011, a small percentage of his catch was found to be undersized, and in 2014, he entered a guilty plea to having undersized and/or female crab. Also in 2014, former captain Peter Liske was similarly sanctioned for undersized crab.

In 2016, TMZ published court documents revealing Brenna A captain Sean Dwyer had been fined for crab pots that weren't up to par. While those are pretty straightforward mistakes, some lawsuits have involved Discovery.

In 2019, Seattle PI reported that a jury had awarded Time Bandit deckhand David Zielinski $1.35 million following a 2013 incident in which a firework exploded in his hand. The suit claimed that not only had Andy Hillstrand given orders to shoot fireworks at the nearby Cape Caution, but that "a shockingly large quantity of potentially very dangerous fireworks for use by the crew" were put on the boat in a massive safety violation. And as for the footage? It was claimed that Discovery filmed the incident, but the footage conveniently disappeared.

One of the biggest reasons they have trouble finding crab isn't mentioned

In 2016, Captain Keith Colburn sat down for a conversation with All Your Screens to talk about climate change, and why he was one of the few fishermen who was vocal about it. Colburn confirmed that he had been a part of climate change panels where no one else in the industry wanted to say it, but he said: "Things are changing everywhere. ... A few years ago, you would see maybe one large storm a year. Now, you're seeing seven or nine a year. And it's because the water is warmer and it's making the weather more unpredictable."

For a long time, though, "Deadliest Catch" glossed over the impacts of climate change — it was only in 2017 that Forbes described it as a "guest star" on the show. In a conversation with The Associated Press, executive producer R. Decker Watson Jr. shared why it had taken so long. "It's a big risk for us to discuss climate change because so many people can think it's a political issue, when really it isn't, particularly in the context of the fishing fleet."

Meanwhile, research from the Journal of Biogeography (via Science Daily) confirmed that King Crab were leaving long-familiar fishing grounds for cooler water, forcing fishing boats to follow them. Still, Watson suggested they were not going to get into the "why" of the change: "At the end of the day, the job of 'Deadliest Catch' isn't to teach people, it's to keep people at the edge of their seats."