The Discovery Channel’s bracing look at the lives and losses of Bering Sea crab men, Deadliest Catch, has been packing a punch since it debuted in 2005. Deadliest Catch distinguishes itself from other reality television in that creative editing is rarely necessary to craft a compelling story line. The set-up — cameras following fishing vessels as their crews try to extract Alaskan king crab, opilio crab, and bairdi crab from the rough waters that churn off the Aleutian Islands — is full of ready-made drama. Shipwrecks are common, as are deadly fires and gruesome accidents and drownings. Crabbing is not for the faint of heart or the fragile. The ocean, in other words, offers no safe spaces.
Unfortunately for the stars of Deadliest Catch, the drama has not been confined to the high seas. Tragedy has followed the show’s captains and crew members on-shore, landing several of them in court and even in jail cells. And some who have escaped sinking or burning ships have done so only to die in hotel rooms or in their own front yards. Others, blessed with great hauls and good health, have had to spend their hard-earned money on funeral suits. It’s like that old saying: "Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning." Fifteen seasons into the show, it seems that many involved with Deadliest Catch are cursed to see more than their fair share of red skies.
Deadliest Catch saw a father and sister leave too soon
Jake Anderson, the captain of the fishing boat Saga and a staple of Deadliest Catch since 2007, has suffered two devastating losses during his tenure on the show. In February 2009, his sister, Cheslea Dawn Anderson, died of pneumonia at the age of 37. A year later, his father, Dr. Keith Anderson, vanished.
A retired high school counselor, Dr. Anderson disappeared during a trip to Snohomish County, Washington. Authorities found his cell phone in the mud near the family home and his truck stuck on a logging road. A search was launched immediately, but Anderson’s father was not found until two and a half years later when a hiker spotted his bones, just a mile from his truck.
Keith Anderson, who had not spent a night away from his wife in 43 years, was reportedly distraught on the day of his disappearance over the approaching one-year anniversary of Chelsea’s death. Jake Anderson had earlier expressed concerned that his father might have been the victim of foul play — citing blood on Keith’s car keys and the odd way his truck was stuck as possible clues — but the family also admitted that Keith was addicted to oxycodone, which he often got from a friend he had planned to visit the day he vanished.
Mourning, then melting down
Jake Harris (pictured left, with his brother, Josh) lost his father, Phil, the immensely popular captain of the Cornelia Marie, in January 2010. That loss came during the sixth season of the show, and Jake, who had often struggled with drugs and was even suspected of doing them on the clock, began to fall apart shortly thereafter. First, he was involved in a hit-and-run accident in Seattle. Then, when sharing a ride home from a Washington casino with three new "friends," he was robbed and beaten within an inch of his life. Later, he was charged with drug possession and grand theft auto in Phoenix while joy-riding with another man’s wife, and still later, in February 2019, having been stopped by park rangers for a possible DUI, he led state troopers on a dangerous chase around rural Washington in an RV. When authorities were finally able to search his vehicle, they found heroin, a stolen shotgun, and a suspended license. Police booked him for DUI, possession of a controlled substance, maintaining a vehicle for the purposes of drug distribution, and possession of a stolen firearm.
Whether Jake’s slow-motion meltdown can be blamed on grief over his father’s death or whether he’s simply his own worst enemy, it seems his run-ins with the law could constitute a sad reality television show all their own.
A Deadliest Catch maverick’s death
A star of the second and third seasons of the show and the captain of the Maverick, Blake Painter was found in his Clatsop County, Oregon, home on May 25, 2018, several days after he died of what appeared to be a drug overdose. Authorities were called to the house when one of Painter’s friends grew concerned about him and, having driven to Painter’s house to check on him, saw a body on the kitchen floor. When police entered the home, they were greeted with the terrible sorts of odors you would expect. Near Painter’s body lay drug paraphernalia, including a pipe and a metal mint tin holding either heroin or meth, as well as prescription pills.
Painter quit Deadliest Catch after Season 3. Prior to his death at age 38, he had been arrested in Astoria, Oregon, for DUI, heroin possession, reckless driving, and tampering with evidence.
A second generation fisherman, Painter had been an avid crabber since he was 3 years old.
One loss hit the Deadliest Catch captains hard
A number of vessels have been lost to disaster during the filming of Deadliest Catch, including the Big Valley, the Galaxy, the Ocean Challenger, and the Destination. Perhaps most poignant of these is the sinking of the Destination because according to a recent Coast Guard investigation, it was preventable. The ship’s capsizing was detailed in the 105th episode of the show, titled "The Mystery of the FV Destination." The Coast Guard found that the Destination, which sank off the coast of St. George Island in February 2017, was weighed down with roughly 330,000 pounds of ice. The disaster plunged several of the show’s stars, including Sig Hansen (pictured hearing the news) and Jake Anderson, into mourning.
The ship’s crew was apparently under a great deal of pressure, having delayed their crabbing efforts to finish up fishing for cod. Had the Destination’s captain, Jeff Hathaway, opted to stop on shore and break up some of the ice that had formed in the crab pots, its six-member crew might have been saved.
It’s an eerie echo of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a freighter that was weighed down with 26,000 tons of iron ore when it sank to the bottom of Lake Superior in 1975. Gordon Lightfoot memorialized the loss in the song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." "Does anyone know," he wrote, "where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?"
Cocaine dealing and a murder in cold blood
The crew of the vessels featured on Deadliest Catch have obviously gotten the most attention, but the behind-the-scenes staff on the show have likewise garnered a few headlines.
In September 2016, a 22-year-old production manager, Matthew J. Schneider, was charged with using and selling cocaine. He was caught in a large undercover sting launched by Unalaska police. Schneider, who, following the charge, fled to California, can be heard on police recordings saying that his supervisor sometimes purchased large amounts of cocaine from the Golden State to distribute at Deadliest Catch soirees, many of which took place in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The investigation has not, to date, roped in any other members of the show’s staff.
By far the sadder case is the story of Joe McMahon, a 25-year-old producer who was shot and killed in front of his parents’ house in Pasadena, California, in the early hours of July 24, 2015. Neighbors reported hearing shots being fired and a car speeding away. McMahon’s body was found one driveway away from where he lived, and he was pronounced dead at the scene.
And then, in a twist worthy of Murder, She Wrote, police found Brandon Rafiepour, 24, in a car not far from McMahon’s home, dead of what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Police believe Rafiepour, who knew McMahon, was the killer, but a motive in the shooting is yet to be disclosed.
A Deadliest Catch deckhand dies in his sleep and a captain sails off into the sunset
The Deadliest Catch community is no stranger to sudden death. In 2010, Captain Phil Harris succumbed to complications from a stroke captured on camera in Season 6. Then, in 2011, just a year after Harris’ passing, Time Bandit deckhand Justin Tennison (left) passed away at the age of 33 in an Alaskan hotel.
The official cause of death was complications from sleep apnea, but police found evidence of possible hard partying the night before his body was discovered. According to his relative Eddie Uwekoolani, Tennison was a family man who cherished his kids and loved the wild, boom-and-bust nature of life as a Bering Sea fisherman. Uwekoolani also hinted that the pressures and fame associated with being on Deadliest Catch might have played a role in Tennison’s demise: "I don’t know if we’re all getting too relaxed or enjoying the movie part," he told the Hollywood Reporter, "but … everybody is watching their health now," he said.
Sadly, despite that caution, the death of Tony Lara (right) soon followed. Lara had taken over the Cornelia Marie skippering duties following the death of his close friend, Captain Phil Harris. In August 2015, Lara was found dead of a heart attack in Sturgis, South Dakota, where he was participating in the town’s immensely popular annual biker rally.
Deadliest Catch has a case of arrested development
Bank robbing and crab fishing might seem, at first glance, to have very little in common with each other, but tell that to Joshua Tel Warner, a crew member on the fishing vessel Wizard who was arrested in Illinois in May 2010 after a routine traffic stop. Viewers recognized Warner from his work on the show and alerted authorities to his presence in the Midwest. Wanted for three armed robberies in Eugene, Oregon, Warner was extradited to his home state and sentenced to nine and a half years behind bars.
In a press conference about Warner’s arrest, Eugene detective Jeff Donaca said Warner was, to some extent, a victim of his own arrogance: "I don’t think you can end up on national TV, make a spectacle of yourself, and not end up getting caught for three bank robberies."
Warner isn’t the only Deadliest Catch star to find himself on the wrong end of law. Jake Harris, son to captain Phil Harris, has, at this point, a rap sheet a mile long, and Sig Hansen, captain of the Northwestern, was arrested in May 2017 in Seattle for spitting on an Uber driver. Unlike Warner, Hansen didn’t get jail time for the offense — only probation and an order to enter a treatment facility and stop using alcohol for a year. Hansen reportedly assaulted driver Waheed Lawal when Lawal informed him he could not accept cash for driving Hansen and his family home. Meanwhile, Sig Hansen’s brother Edgar pleaded guilty to sexual assault in July 2018.
Suing on the high seas
Deadliest Catch was a break-out hit for the Discovery Channel when it debuted in April 2005. Since then, it has garnered 16 Emmys and inspired countless other rough-around-the-edges reality shows like History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men. Why then would the Discovery Channel decide to sue some of the biggest stars of one of their most popular shows? Because those stars, the Hillstrand brothers, allegedly failed to honor their contractual obligations for the filming of a Deadliest Catch spinoff, Hillstranded.
In late summer 2010, the Discovery Channel sued Johnathan and Andy Hillstrand for $3 million, claiming they failed to show up for a number of photo shoots and interviews necessary to make Hillstranded ready for broadcast. The brothers had become famous for their hard work and antics aboard the Time Bandit, skippered by Sig Hansen. All three men quit the show in September 2010 in protest of the lawsuit.
A month letter, the channel settled with the Hillstrands and Hansen, and the fishermen agreed to return for the next season. But some damage had undoubtedly been done. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.
When fireworks go wrong
Johnathan and Andy Hillstrand of the Time Bandit just can’t seem to stay out of the courtroom. In 2013, a member of their Time Bandit crew, David "Beaver" Zielinski, was injured when a firework he was holding exploded prematurely. According to Zielinski, who sued the brothers for $2.7 million, he’d been ordered by the Andy Hillstrand to shoot the firework at a rival boat, the Cape Caution. The firework shattered Zielinski’s hand and forearm, effectively ending his career as a commercial crabber.
In the course of the trial, which took place in summer 2017, Zielinski claimed that Johnathan Hillstrand told him to lie about the cause of his injuries in order to protect himself and his brother, that a member of the Time Bandit crew threw the launcher and what was left of the firework overboard in an effort to destroy evidence, and that the Discovery Channel mysteriously lost its footage of the event. Zielinski was eventually awarded $1.4 million in damages.
Depleting supply and warming oceans has affected Deadliest Catch
The captains and crew of the vessels featured in Deadliest Catch have for years fought rough seas and drug addiction and suffered the loss of livelihood and loved ones. Their newest foe is climate change, which is depleting the supply of all variety of Bering Sea crab and forcing them further and further from shore. The dire nature of this problem first became clear in Season 13 of the show, when, according to IndieWire, producers and talent alike began to wonder if there would be any action to film, i.e., any crabs to catch. A 4-degree rise in temperature in the Bering Sea was enough to put crab populations and the fishermen’s futures at risk.
In order to keep crabbers from over-fishing, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has created a quota system based on an annual survey of the overall health of the crab population. As of 2017, the quota had to be cut in half, meaning Deadliest Catch captains like Sig Hansen could only count on half the income they were used to.
Despite the grim realities, Hansen told IndieWire he and his fellow fishermen are determined to press on. "The fleet is going to need to go further and deeper," he said. "Nobody is going to take away a fishermen’s way of life. I can guarantee you that this fleet will not quit. … But we’re always fearful that this will be our last year."
Deadliest Catch has spun off into even more dangerous waters
What some viewers might not comprehend from watching the Deadliest Catch crews go head-to-head with death every week is that fishing for Alaskan king crab in the Bering Sea is not actually as dangerous as it gets. That dubious honor goes to dungeness crab fishing, a less regulated, more reckless profession and the impetus behind the Discovery Channel spinoff Deadliest Catch: Dungeon Cove.
Dungeon Cove follows four families of fishermen who work off the coast of Newport, Oregon, known to many as "the graveyard of the Pacific." And it showcases the tricky financial aspect of derby-style fishing, meaning it’s basically first-come, first-served and every man for himself. Dungeon Cove premiered in September 2016, and already one man has sued his captain for negligence, claiming a lack of training and safety protocol led to his losing full use of one arm. The plaintiff, Nolan Dean, testified that he got his arm caught in a hydraulic lift and was then thrown overboard. The captain in the suit is named Gary "The Ripper" Ripka, which seems like a pretty bad stroke of luck.
A haunting loss for Deadliest Catch
Reality television has done many things for the world of entertainment — some of it good, some of it bad, most of it pretty ugly. One of the more controversial contributions of reality television to popular culture is the chance for viewers to watch someone die. This scenario played out in Season 6 of Deadliest Catch when Captain Phil Harris, skipper of the Cornelia Marie, had a massive stroke on deck while offloading snow crabs on St. George Island, Alaska.
According to Phil’s son Josh, his father wanted the cameras to keep rolling while he struggled to move and communicate. Following the stroke, he was transported to an Anchorage hospital where died a week later of a pulmonary embolism. The camera crews were at the hospital, too, capturing Harris’ final moments and his family as they dealt with the shock. Johnathan Hillstrand, co-captain of the Time Bandit, wasn’t sure he could watch the emotional episode. "We’re not characters, we’re real people," he told the Los Angeles Times.
Harris’ death was devastating not only to his family and friends, but to fans of the show who had grown to love the chain-smoking, tattooed fisherman’s no-nonsense approach to work and life. Whether Deadliest Catch really regained its footing after Captain Phil’s death is a matter of opinion. What is certain is that the crabbing world lost one of its most colorful characters when Phil Harris crossed the proverbial bar.
The death of Mahlon Reyes
In August 2020, there was the announcement of more sad news: Mahlon Reyes, a deckhand and regular aboard both the Seabrooke and the Cape Caution, had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Reyes was home when he suffered a major heart attack — according to USA Today, he was immediately taken to the hospital in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana. Reyes, 38, was transferred to life support, but after a day his family made the decision to remove him from it.
Their Facebook memorial and tribute read in part: "On Sunday night our family together made the hardest choice we’ve ever made and that was to remove him from life support. Mahlon’s body was tired and had put up an amazing fight. He was the strongest guy we knew. He was surrounded by so much love."
Reyes’ Deadliest Catch family posted tributes, too, including condolences and photos of happy times from by Nick McGlashan (via PopCulture). Reyes’ wife wrote that the support from friends and family was making an "impossible situation bearable," and that "I am in awe of the people that he touched just by his positive attitude and smile." Plans were made to spread his ashes over the Bering Sea and in the Swan Range Mountains of Montana.