Plus, read to the end to see Alaska's REAL deadliest catch...
Last summer I was a deckhand on a seiner in Prince William Sound - AKA "the bathtub" AKA "the princess fishery." One great thing about none of your friends and family growing up in Alaska is you get to go home and lie to them about what really goes on up here.
"Oh man," one would ask, "was it just like the Deadliest Catch?"
"Yes," I would say, "Prince William Sound is exactly like that. Between scraping the ice off the deck in 30 foot seas and wrestling King Crab bigger than I am I am surprised I survived."
Now this is not to take anything away from the brave souls in any commercial fishery in Alaska or around the country. Despite the term "the bathtub," in Prince William Sound alone multiple seiners, tenders, and gillnetters sank or burned up, several fishermen were medevac'd to Anchorage due to serious injury, and the captains and crew had countless brushes with very dangerous situations. Commercial fishing in all of its forms is dirty, difficult, dangerous work.
However, the question highlights a common issue about outsider's perspective of Alaska. People see one narrow view of a thing (i.e. commercial fishing) up here and tend to apply it to the whole state. They underestimate the vast scope and diversity of the land, the people, and the bio-diversity.
So in short, no, not every fishery is like "The Deadliest Catch," and in order to educate you here's a quick rundown of commercial fisheries in Alaska.
The Scope of Commercial Fishing in Alaska
By the numbers, Alaska is one of the most bountiful and important commercial fishing regions in the world. It is responsible, by weight, for over 60% of the US commercial catch each year. The state is bordered by 3 different seas - the Arctic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and Bering Seas, and has over 40% of the nation's surface water.
On top of that, probably because the land here was so recently developed in the grand scheme of time, it also has some of the best-managed fisheries in the world. The resources are tracked, protected, and managed on a long-term basis in order to sustain the economic engine that provides more rural jobs and small business opportunities than any other industry in the state.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game divides commercial fishing up into five different groups based on the catch: salmon, groundfish, shellfish, herring, and dive fisheries.
Salmon is the most commercially valuable fishery in the state and has fisheries from Ketchikan - which is closer to Seattle than Anchorage - all the way up to Kotzebue 33 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
It provides the most direct and indirect jobs in Alaska fishing every year and I would guess just based on experience that if you've met someone who has been commercial fishing in Alaska before, they were probably a commercial fisherman. It's the most "convenient" to access - some key salmon fishing port cities in southcentral Alaska like Homer and Valdez are actually accessible by car - and it takes place during the peak summer months making it a logical choice for students and those who don't want to scrape ice all day.
The largest salmon fishing boats are much smaller than a lot of the boats in the Bering Sea shell fisheries. Purse Seiners are often only up to about 60' long. Much of the salmon fleet runs gillnetters - small 20-35' boats - or set net operations, meaning they anchor nets just off the shore and fish them out of large skiffs.
Also, salmon fishing in places like Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound are, how do I put this, kind of a scene. You're typically fishing right on the shoreline and are, if not surrrounded by other boats, at least have some neighbors in sight. You aren't out in the middle of the ocean with nothing but 30 foot swells around you, you are probably going to be fishing within yelling distance of another boat, which your captain will utilize when he or she has a problem with your neighbor.
Overall, salmon fishing looks almost nothing like what you would find on the Deadliest Catch. The boats are smaller, the weather is better, and it's much more crowded.
The Groundfish fishery targets the most diverse array of species of any of these categories: mackerel, pollock, Pacific Cod, sablefish, lingcod, rockfish, and others.
Captains run trawlers, longline gear, and even pot fishing gear to target these species. These fisheries employ a huge number of boats and people each year and fish the whole state from Southeast to the Bering Sea. Scenes from some of the groundfish fisheries actually could look a lot like Deadliest Catch - they do run some massive boats out into the Aleutian chain and Bering Sea in the winter. Others, however, would look nothing like Deadliest Catch - sometimes gillnetters in Southcentral Alaska will be repurposed to longline for a small groundfish quota.
It's harder to sum this category up than it is the Salmon category. These fishermen run tons of different types boats and gear, at all times of year, all over the state. Interesting fact - many of the groundfish resources are also managed on a federal level.
"Deadliest Catch" AKA Shellfish
Shellfish is the second-most valuable fishery in Alaska by value. It doesn't employ the second most number of people or boats, but species like King Crab are so valuable that a "little" goes a long way. The majority of this value comes from the Bering Sea, of which Bristol Bay is its eastern-most arm.
King Crab fishing in the Bering Sea is carried out typically between October and January. Boats like the F/V Northwestern and the F/V Wizard and the F/V Time Bandit are 110-160 feet long. This is where you get huge, heavy pots, big swells, icy decks, and the toughest of the tough fishermen.
However, this category includes a lot of other fisheries you might think about. There's actually a shrimp fishery in Prince William Sound just started to get fished commercially in 2010 again after the Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill destroyed the stock. It's much less dangerous and much less lucrative than the Bering Sea crab fisheries.
Commercial fishermen also harvest tanner and snow crab, scallops, clams, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers across the state.
This is an interesting one. Herring have supported some of Alaska's oldest commercial fisheries dating back to 1878. It's gone through some booms and busts - in the 1920s it was processed for oil and meal and exploded in popularity which resulted in overfishing in many places. In the 1970s the Japanese were restricted from many of their herring fisheries and that country's huge demand for both the meat and the roe had to be met by foreign exporters. In the 1980s Southeast Alaskan herring fishermen were absolutely raking it in and were some of the top dogs in the whole state.
Herring are caught commercially like salmon with purse seiners or gillnetters, and very rarely specific types of trawlers. The herring roe out of Southeast that were like gold so many years ago have dramatically declined in value since the mid-90s due to changing tastes of the younger demographics in the Japanese market.
This fishery, like salmon, is very unlike the Deadliest Catch. It's fished fairly close to shore and in typically tight areas with other fishermen.
"Fisheries You Didn't Know Existed" AKA Dive Fisheries
Did you know people actually dive, in Alaska, for sea life that they can sell? I know, I was shocked when I found out too.
For obvious reasons these fisheries are only in the lower third of the state, primarily in Southeast but also around Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula as well. Fishermen dive for sea cucumbers AKA "Cukes," Geoduck Clams, Red Sea Urchins, Green Sea Urchins and Pinto Abalone. What are these creatures and what are they used for? I don't know.
These fisheries look absolutely nothing like what you would see on the tv show, but Cukes might actually be Alaska's true deadliest catch.