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‘Deadliest Catch’ a Cowboy Race to Cap-and-Trade

| August 23, 2009

The Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” is a reality series based on the toil and tyranny of crab fishing in the Bering Sea. About 4 million people watch the show every week, making it one of the top-rated programs on cable. It’s a strange phenomenon, considering that it’s just watching people work. But it’s more than that, if a bit less than what it advertises itself to be.

The show features the same four or five crews on the same boats week after week as they hunt for king crab in fall or opilio crab in winter. The work is endless, numbingly repetitive, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, more dangerous than any other job. Deckhands wield 800-pound crab pots (empty) that become lethal weapons on icy decks. They dump them baited or raise them writhing with crab as they work 40 hours at a stretch in the roll and slosh of 30-foot waves, sub-zero temperatures and Category 1 hurricane winds. Lording over deckhands and audience is the tyranny of the chain-smoking, cuss-curdled, gloom-powered captains, each an Ahab, a Strangelove and a John Wayne all in one. All worth the abuse to body and soul. Deckhands can make $30,000 in a matter of weeks. One boat can haul in $1.3 million worth of crab in a half season. For the rest of us futon cowboys, it’s a Tuesday night addiction.

For all the reality on display, it does require some suspension of disbelief – if you’re curious about the economics behind it all. The show’s stars are presented as frontiersmen, exercising a form of pure capitalism at the edge of the world and of human endurance. It makes for good drama, jazzing up what looks like a race against nature and between the boats, whose catch is tallied at the end of every show. The endurance bits are indisputable. The pure capitalism, not so much.

“Deadliest Catch” doesn’t advertise the fact, but it’s an excellent example of one of the most successful cap-and-trade systems on the planet – the same principle that successfully cleaned up the Northeast’s acid rain in the 1990s and that, industrial-strength lies about it notwithstanding, should regulate polluters to fight global warming. The Bering Sea captains don’t control how much crab they haul in. Government quotas do. They can trade or lease some of their quota to other boats, or buy larger quota shares from other boats as long as the fleet’s overall catch limit isn’t exceeded. It’s government interference. It’s also saving the fishery.

Until 2005, anyone with a boat and a coil of guts could take on the sea. The government set limits on the number of days crab could be fished, not the amount that could be hauled in. It was a derby. Every season, some 300 boats went out to sea, often braving storms, employing misfits and gambling on the boat’s safety to score big in the brief window of time allowed (three days, in some seasons). Many boats went broke. Many sank. Between 1989 and 2005, 85 fishermen were killed. The crab grounds crashed in 1983 and again in 1999. It was folly to men and crustaceans, and unsustainable.

In came cap-and-trade. Alaska fishermen big on know-it-all scorn and anti-government reflexes greeted the system with immense displeasure in 2005. By 2007, the average boat was hauling in 4.6 times the amount of crab hauled in the last year of open fishing. The number of boats was cut by more than half with a federal buy-out. Boat owners who left made money. Those who stayed make money as long as they fish. Deaths and injuries fell as boats could fish for months instead of hours, employ the best deckhands and ride out severe storms in coves instead of on the high seas.

In other words, cap-and-trade works. The market has its say. So does strict regulation. Fishermen and crab thrive. Think of the sea as an endowment. As long as it’s fully endowed, fishermen profit big off the interest. Breach the principal, a crash follows. Regulation isn’t the job-killer. Cowboy capitalism is.

The environment is like the sea – an endowment whose principal is being pirated by polluters. More free-marketeering tempts a crash in the form of global melts, sea rises, cataclysmic disruptions to coastal populations. Cap-and-trade for polluters will do more than avert a crash. It’ll seed a cleaner, healthier, richer economy. To indulge in myths of unbridled capitalism, there’s always “Deadliest Catch.”

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