NEW YORK (Reuters) - Boat captains from the U.S. television show "Deadliest Catch," which chronicles the perils of Bering Sea crab fishing, say small commercial fishermen are unfairly blamed in the debate over declining fish populations.
Marine ecologists and environmentalists have criticized commercial fishing and what they see as a lack of proper government regulation since large-scale industrial fishing began decades ago.
Several fishing boat captains from the Emmy-nominated cable TV show say government bodies and fisheries need to set wiser fishing quotas to ensure healthy fish populations and a balanced food chain. The show's fifth season finale airs on Tuesday on the Discovery Channel cable television network.
"When things go wrong, the fishermen get blamed, but the truth is we are only fishing what they tell us we can fish," captain Phil Harris told Reuters, referring to the quotas that Alaskan crab fisherman like him are given at the beginning of each season setting limits to how much they can catch.
Harris, 52, and other captains are seen on the show, which airs in 170 countries, displaying their prowess in catching king and Opilio crab in dangerous currents and icy conditions in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia.
The television series, which began in 2005, features Harris and other captains and their crews risking their lives for commercial fishing. Alaska is home to one of the world's largest food fisheries.
"It makes me so angry when people talk about overfishing. We have never overfished, they give us a quota and we catch it," said captain Andy Hillstrand, who heads his family-owned vessel the "Time Bandit." "People call fishermen greedy, but it is not their job to regulate it."
Michael Crocker, a fisherman turned environmentalist who has written about fisheries management, said fishermen should be included in debates on solutions to overfishing.
"Not all fisherman are the same. There are small mom-and-pop fisherman who have a relatively small impact on the ocean," Crocker said, adding that larger fishing conglomerates or vessels were unfairly favored in some quota systems. "It rewards high exploitation."
Scientists, environmentalists and the commercial fishing industry often differ on opinions of fish quotas in Alaska.
Last December, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees management of fishing off Alaska, cut catches of Alaskan pollock because of a reduction of stocks in the Bering Sea.
Some environmentalists argued for an even smaller harvest quota, saying the Bering Sea is undergoing drastic changes that might cause fisheries to crash.
The captains vowed to argue for the rights of fishermen even after the show finishes. It will air its sixth season next year and its future is unclear after that.
"We are not celebrities, we are crab fisherman, and somebody started coming and taking pictures," said captain Sig Hansen, 43, a fourth-generation fisherman. "When the show goes off (the air) people won't know my name. I know that."
Editing by Michelle Nichols and Will Dunham