A life in the salmon and crabbing industry has catapulted a Walla Walla man in front of a film crew for the "Deadliest Catch" reality TV show. It's a job the Discovery Channel website bills as the most dangerous in the world.
Capt. Scott Campbell Jr. began pushing fish on a salmon tender as a 4-year-old. Living with his family in Kodiak, "I was probably more getting in the way, but I was working with my dad, which was expected of kids in Alaska. I had a work ethic instilled upon me at an early age," he said.
He answers to "Capt. Jr." because he fished with his dad, Capt. Scott Campbell Sr., now of Milton-Freewater.
At 36, Campbell is described on the "Deadliest Catch" website as bringing "youth and cockiness" to the show as a new season addition. "But behind the steely confidence, Junior is still haunted by the loss of a deckhand at sea. Can he battle back and conquer his demons?"
Narrated by Mike Rowe, the new season will debut April 12 and Campbell plans to be at the Los Angeles premiere party on that date. The show's moniker aptly describes what the industry is about. Wikipedia says "the fatality rate among the fishermen is about 90 times the fatality rate of the average worker. It is suggested that, on average, one crab fisherman dies weekly during the season."
"There are no life lines, just personal flotation devices/life jackets. When someone goes overboard you have to get them back." Sometimes a person or a boat is lost without a trace, Campbell said. "Everyone in the industry has seen some sort of injury or a death -- it's the ugly part of the job," Campbell said.
After graduating in 1993 from McLoughlin High School in Milton-Freewater, Campbell left for the Bering Sea fishing grounds.
Now he captains fishing vessel (F/V) Seabrooke, which his dad bought a share of in 1999. Campbell bought a share in 2002 and has owned the boat outright since 2005.
Seabrooke is 109 feet long by 30 feet wide, with a 14-foot draw. It can pack a loose cargo of 170,000 pounds of live crab or 360,000 pounds of densely stacked refrigerated salmon, Campbell said.
He captains the Seabrooke with five to six crewmen, depending on the season. Among those is kid brother Chris Welch, 26, of Milton-Freewater, "a newer guy on board starting out his career."
Crab crews can earn from $25,000 to $40,000 per person, Campbell said, hinging on their catch. In terms of himself, Campbell said, "I don't need to be a better fisherman, just outwork the others and be more profitable."
What they make is "based on hard work and luck of the draw, the style of fishing and the locations they fish," he said. Their roles may rotate, Campbell said, but everyone is a deckhand whether they take turns cooking or not. "Food and sleep are optional. It's vigorous and intense and not everyone is suited to the work."
It's brutal and the weather can be a cruel taskmaster, he added.
Crab fishing is handled by a small fleet of 50 to 70 boats. The "Deadliest Catch" program seeks and documents the experiences of captains, boats and crews "based on their reputation, whether they're the get-lucky type of guys, or strong and bold, or who will fish in several types of weather and can spark life back into the show," Campbell said.
Campbell grew up in Kodiak when his dad worked in the shrimping and crabbing industry. At about 8 or 9, Campbell moved to Milton-Freewater with his dad and mom, Kathy Campbell. Campbell's father retired in about 2008 to their small farm.
During crab season, the allotted boats vie to catch red king crab with its 6-foot leg span and the 2- to 4-pound snow or Opilio crab. In the summer when the crabs are molting and inedible, crab boats convert to salmon tenders to off-load and refrigerate fish caught by a fleet of 2,000 smaller boats, Campbell said. This way crab crews get stability by continuing to work and it minimizes traffic in the water around the processing plants, which would otherwise be choked with small fishing boats.
When reached Friday, Campbell said he had just gotten the film crew off his boat with episodes 1 to 8 in the can. They came aboard Oct. 15, he said, for the king crab season. January to May is traditional snow crab season.
Prior to regulated fish quota shares, there were 350 boats plying the sea with 40,000 pots in the water and no proper management, Campbell said. Since then, the fleet's been reduced to 50 to 70 boats. The state sets the quota each year, based on a survey conducted in the summer. The allowed harvest works out to 6 percent of the biomass, Campbell said.
"Everyone works the traditional fishing grounds in the Bering Sea, in a range of 500 miles north by 200 miles east and 200 miles west," Campbell said.
Campbell said he came to the attention of the show when "Producers were looking for a younger, fresher captain with different ideas." Some of the other captains were looking to retire and Original Productions needed a couple more boats to document on the show.
They were also attracted by Campbell's innovative techniques. The Seabrooke is updated and employs sorting methods to return females and smaller crab to the ocean unharmed. He stressed that his crew handles them as quickly and carefully as possible to protect the future of the industry. He has an updated hydraulic sorting table that is easier on and minimizes damage to live crab. "We're trying to create a sustainable industry. A lot of boats are coming around to this idea."
For the production, Seabrooke had four stationary cameras fixed on board, plus a cameraman in the wheelhouse and another one on deck. "They document the fishing, the crew and the weather. The weather is the No. 1 thing. They want to get the industry in its natural form," Campbell said.
"If a guy's a screamer or a workaholic, they want to capture it the best they can. They're on board as observers. They don't want to fabricate anything, or stage it.
"It's a very stressful job, because of the 30 hour days and stopping for 2 1/2 hours, then going again. We can't be in town to get good rest. We're rolling around in bunks and going without 15-minute breaks and we're out in the frigid elements for hours."
Campbell added that "The captain has the weight of everybody's families on his shoulders. We have to catch our quota so we can all get paid. The longer it takes to make the quota, the more it costs."
But he enjoys it. "It's like any job. You have to have a passion for your job or it's high time to change into something else.
"Some days I think what am I doing here? I have two girls and a wife at home. I miss them and they miss me. It's a tough thing to be away from the family."
He and his wife, high school sweetheart Lisa Scudder Campbell, have two daughters: Stormee, 16, a sophomore at Walla Walla High School, and Trinidy, 11, a fifth-grader at Prospect Point Elementary School. Lisa works as a registered nurse at Walla Walla Clinic.
Annie Charnley Eveland can be reached at email@example.com or afternoons at 526-8313.