The crew of the former Deadliest Catch vessel-turned-tour boat Aleutian Ballad knows that time on the water is often dangerous. That’s why each year, they give a “memorial pot” to one coastal community impacted by accidents at sea.
This year, the crew dedicated the memorial pot to Metlakatla. They were inspired by a recent documentary about Alaska’s only Native reserve.
The award-winning 2021 documentary Alaskan Nets is mostly about Metlakatla’s 2018 state championship-winning basketball team. But the film also focuses on the dangers Metlakatla’s fishermen face.
As the Metlakatla Chiefs fought to win the state tournament in 2018, their town faced a series of losses — both at sea, and in the community.
“In that movie, there’s a couple of dive accidents where we lost some community members,” Metlakatla Mayor Albert Smith said.
And that’s why crewmembers on the Aleutian Ballad, the crabbing boat that became iconic on the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch,” decided to pay Annette Island a visit on Monday.
David Lethin is one of the Ballad’s captains. He said that each year, his crew looks for communities that have seen hardships related to fishing. Lethin said that over the summer tour season, visitors onboard the Ballad scrawled memories about their time in Alaska on fish tags.
“And so our guests right here at the Bering Sea Crab Fisherman’s tour would grab those tags, put a donation in the box, and then we would zip-tie those tags to the top of our crab pot, which we turned into a memorial pot,” he explained.
By the end of the summer, the pot held $28,000 — their biggest haul yet. It’s for Metlakatla to start up its first community fund dedicated to families who have lost a loved one at sea.
He remembered watching the documentary when it came out. That’s what solidified Metlakatla as this year’s pick.
“It kind of portrays the kids growing up, you know, having to go hunting in the morning, having to go to algebra at eight o’clock, having to go to school, maybe they may have to go fishing with somebody in the afternoon,” Lethin said. “It was the lifestyle. And on top of that, they had some accidents in their fisheries, where some of the family members did not come home.”
The Ballad made it to Metlakatla on Monday. Smith and members of the community came aboard the boat and listened as Lethin shared stories about the Aleutian Ballad and other memorial pots. There was cheering when a check was presented to Smith.
Lethin remembered meeting Smith, and hearing him talk about the struggles a family faces when a loved one doesn’t come back from a trip on the water.
“There’s even times when — they do have a fisherman’s memorial, it’s up on the point there, right in town right on the edge of the point overlooking the water –and he shared that, you know, ‘When we have accidents here, some of the families don’t even have enough money to buy the plaque to put on the memorial for their loved ones that were left behind,'” Lethin said.
Lethin said the Aleutian Ballad passed through Metlakatla’s waters many times this summer.
“And many times their fishermen are in the waters, the gillnetters, the seiners, which we get to see them right up close next to us,” he recalled. “… They have welcomed us — they were always waving, they might be dancing on the back of their boats.”
Smith said the community plans to set the funds aside to help families who have lost loved ones at sea. He said the community is grateful for the gift.
“We’re so appreciative of the thoughtfulness of the crew of the Aleutian Ballad and all their guests throughout the summer,” Smith said.
As for the next memorial pot, Lethin said he isn’t sure where it will land. He thinks that fishing communities impacted by Hurricane Ian’s landfall might be a good place to look.
Raegan Miller is a Report for America corps member for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at KRBD.org/donate.