One of the most spectacular and interesting reality shows to watch is Deadliest Catch. It first premiered on Discovery Chanel on April 12, 2005 and currently airs in 150 countries. The show portrays the real life events aboard fishing vessels in the Bering Sea during the Alaskan king crab fishing season, indeed one of the most dangerous working conditions a person can work under.
The Aleutian Islands port of Dutch Harbor, which is located in Alaska, is the base of the operations for the fishing fleet. The show's name derives from the inherent high risk of injury or death the crews face due to the hazardous work environment and nature of the work itself. The series follows life on the vast Bering Sea with a fleet of crab fishing boats. For observation we chose the first episode of the first season. Our choice stopped on the vessel called ‘Northwestern’. Measuring 126 feet, it is one of the relatively larger boats in the show. Captain Sig Hansen, and his brothers Edgar Hansen and Norman Hansen are deckboss/engineer and deckhand respectively. Bradford Davis is the greenhorn. The team has two obvious goals: the first is to catch and deliver the most king crabs in one season. Secondly, it is essential to maintain safety on board with such dangerous working conditions. All actions take place on the dangerous and unpredictable Bering Sea on a crabbing boat near Dutch Harbor. Characteristics of this environment are ice-cold waters, dangerous currents and stormy weather.
During our discussions a few points became clear that we all agreed upon with what we had individually all observed. Every team member had the same view on the team’s goals:
1. Come home safely, and make sure crew members do so too;
2. Catch and deliver as many king crabs as possible;
3. Work to the fullest à give your best.
Furthermore, we agreed that the team’s motivation is to gain as much profit as possible, survive, and work together under strenuous conditions. Captain Sig Hansen is motivated and experienced with a strong personality. The verbal communication among the team members is very little, perhaps due to the rigorous circumstances, which is still ineffective. Also there are some unwritten rules among the team. They are:
1. Safety comes first
2. Everybody is responsible for himself
3. Greenhorns are lowest in the hierarchy à very little to say
Though it is not mentioned explicitly there is a clear hierarchy on the boat. As we mentioned before the lowest here are the greenhorns.
In contrast to this, some key differences were analyzed amongst our team in regard to the success of the captain and the effectiveness of communication on board. There was a clear divide between those who thought that the captain was strict or arrogant. On one hand the arguments were built on the idea that the captain knows how to lead and supervise his crew by being strict. Despite this, others would argue that he was arrogant and did not always have the crewmember’s best interest at heart. Moreover, effectiveness of communication led to a thorough discussion about whether the solitary use of hand signals was an effective way of communicating and also saved time when under strenuous conditions. However, another team member effectively argued that there is indeed barely any verbal communication, which can be seen as ineffective. It was also apparent that verbal communication only occurred when crewmembers were stressed or frustrated. Therefore, verbal communication was only used in a negative way on board.
There were different sources used to form our initial impressions of the group, its members, and the dynamics. First we exchanged clear descriptions of scenes or scenarios to layout our ideas. Then we observed the team interaction on the boat, how the crew communicated (what was being said) and personality traits (tempers, frustration and hierarchy). In addition we drew comparisons to other situations that had occurred for a compare and contrast analysis. Finally, we used the information provided by the narrator to extract observations for our analyses.
Moreover, on the show there is evidence of prejudice, discrimination, or the use of stereotypes in the show – either between group members, between groups depicted, or from other people on the show. Due to the hierarchy, the greenhorns are maltreated compared to the other crewmembers. They have to prove their skills and work harder than any other crewmember to get rid of the prejudices of being the “newbie”. Often this leads to greater frustration, which is not always useful when working under great stress. In addition, age discrimination is present as the senior crewmembers are looked upon as too old to be working on the boat, especially when easily fatigued. They are viewed as working too slow (evident with hauling the pots, one senior member cannot even get a crab out of the pot) but also a hazard for the other crewmembers. However, not all senior members are so ineffective. Also there is a common stereotype about (crab) fishers from outside groups with little knowledge that they are believed to be stupid and are incapable of doing any other job (“anybody can fish” ). However, after watching the episode, it becomes clear that a lot is required for this job both mentally and physically.
It became clear to us over the course of the show that the crab fishers are effective teams, which is only natural considering their working conditions. They need to perform in high speed and with great efficiency with little sleep and often a lot of frustration. The strengths we observed on the ‘Northwestern’ are:
1. Strong bonding amongst crewmembers (spending 5 days in a small space under hard working conditions);
2. Blind understanding of individual tasks to perform as best as a team as possible (when preparing a pot the bait is installed, another member takes over, attaches the bait to pot and the final crewmember closes the pot à all without verbal communication);
3. Trust (doing a dangerous job in a team requires trust);
4. Understanding that to make the most money everyone has to work together as effectively as possible (when one member (e.g. Bradford Davis has to prepare more bait) another member (deckhand Norman Hansen) steps in to prepare the bait à bait = catching crabs = money);
5. In times of stress hierarchy is ‘forgotten’ to be able to assist a fellow crewmember à safety first (when a member falls overboard all other members available jump in to immediately help (e.g. Greenhorn fell overboard previous season)).
Despite this, we did agree upon some significant weaknesses on board that could be improved upon:
1. The biggest weakness on the ‘Northwestern’ is the inflexible nature of every individual’s job. When one member cannot perform any longer no other member could fill his position à every member is vital for the team as a whole;
2. Uniform tasks à very specialized;
3. No crewmember has time to observe the task of the other crewmembers.
If our team was called in to improve the performance of the group we observed we would suggest them to introduce safety courses before becoming a crewmember. The other advice is a “greenhorn training” where new crewmembers will be effectively prepared for the jobs they will have to perform. Also, it could be possible to organize an event for the crewmembers (especially the greenhorns) to get to know the other team members better. Better bonding can lead to greater productivity and trust in the team. Additionally, what can be essential to more effective performance is an improvement in the living conditions on board. A healthy crew is a key to success, as the captain states. Finally, the crew could optimize the crab fishing process. For example move the pot (using a crane) to the sorting table instead of the heavy sorting table to the pot.
Due to the confinement of the working space on the ‘Northwestern’ as well as the specialized tasks and inflexible working environment not many alterations can be enforced without changing the team’s goals, membership or the environment and constraints the group is required to operate in. Thus one strategy to improve the team would be to introduce effective and extensive training prior to the crab fishing:
1. Beginner & Advanced training
o Involves clear explanation of tasks
o The importance of team-bonding
2. Safety course
Essence of the training is to provide the crewmembers with experience so that they do not have to learn this on the boat. Greater knowledge more commonly leads to higher productivity and thus greater profit, one of the main goals of the crew.
In retrospect, one of the most interesting things we learnt from this exercise was discovering a stereotype we all had about fishers that is not true. Their job requires great input both mentally and physically because of the unpredictable Bering Sea and the whole atmosphere around. Amongst our own team we had good communication in organizing and during meetings. This often lead to many varying opinions and thus greater breadth of details therefore creating a more effective and interesting analysis of an interesting reality show.