Addiction in the Fishing Industry

Commercial fishermen have high-risk and isolated jobs. Fishermen are gone from their families and homes for weeks at a time and often make big paydays in short amounts of time. The job is physically grueling and can commonly lead to injuries.

Alcohol consumption is a typical event on a fishing vessel and also during the short bursts of time that fishermen are on shore between runs. Alcohol is often used to celebrate a good haul or as a measure to pass the time swapping “fish stories.” Prescription pain medications may also be commonly used on a fishing boat by fishermen nursing physical pain from the strenuous job. High cash payouts and many idle hours as well as a kind of “living on the edge” type of lifestyle may lead to the purchase of recreational drugs.

The fishing industry often attracts individuals who have no desire to hold down a “regular” nine-to-five office job, and they may be more free-spirited and see less risk in using mind-altering substances. Long stretches away from families and loved ones may make it difficult to recognize when alcohol or drug abuse becomes problematic. Fishermen are generally intensely private and are often viewed as “tough guys,” not wishing to share when a problem may exist.

Alcohol consumption is a typical event on a fishing vessel and also during the short bursts of time that fishermen are on shore between runs.

Overdose in the Fishing Industry

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes that 91 people die every day from an opioid overdose in the United States.

Addiction and drug abuse are common within the fishing industry. This can be indicated by looking at fishing towns like Gloucester, Massachusetts, where drug overdoses are more common than in other towns of similar size, per the Los Angeles Times. The Boston Globe publishes that six fishermen died from a drug overdose in just three years on the docks in Gloucester, and in New Bedford, heroin was found on six out of 11 outbound boats during random drug testing.

Opioid abuse and drug overdoses are not isolated to the fishing industry; however, these issues have made their way from land to sea on fishing vessels. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) warns that over 2.5 million Americans struggle with opioid addiction, including to both prescription opioids and heroin. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes that 91 people die every day from an opioid overdose in the United States. Opioid abuse and overdose are public health concerns that reach into virtually every community and industry in the US. Thankfully, there are numerous efforts and resources to combat addiction within the fishing industry specifically.

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Fishermen, Drug Use, and Addiction

Fishermen go out on a vessel and are gone for weeks to months at a time. During this time, they are physically and mentally stretched, often to a breaking point. Alcohol and drugs may be a method to numb the pain, pass the time, celebrate, or escape from reality.

Fishermen may pop painkillers for a physical ailment, and regular use of these medications can often lead to drug tolerance. When a person becomes tolerant to a drug, this means that taking the same amount will no longer work, and they will need to up the dosage for it to have any further effect. Drug tolerance may then lead a person to want to take more of the drug more often and can contribute to patterns of misuse. Not to mention that opioid pain relievers are also mind-altering and can induce relaxation and a mellow “high” that may become desirable.

Individuals may start out with a legitimate prescription for an opioid drug for pain relief that can devolve into medication misuse. Repeated use of an opioid drug for a length of time, especially if the drug is being misused, can cause drug dependence and addiction. A person’s brain is altered by opioid drugs, as the presence of opioids interacts with opioid receptors in the brain and actually changes brain chemistry as a result. This artificial alteration of the chemical makeup of the brain, when perpetuated by continued drug use, can cause the brain to depend on the presence of the drug. Once dependence has developed, withdrawal symptoms and cravings will present when the drug wears off. Opioid drug withdrawal can be intense, and individuals battling opioid dependence may then lose their ability to control their continued drug use, leading to addiction.

Time away from work can impact a fisherman’s bottom line. If they aren’t on the boat, they aren’t making money, and the threat to a person’s livelihood and ability to provide for their family can be a barrier to treatment for substance abuse issues. Treatment options often involve a person’s ability to attend meetings and sessions or even a residential stay in a treatment facility, and this can seem daunting or even flat out not feasible to someone who makes their living out on the open water much of the time. In addition, fishing ports are often in small towns that may or may not have treatment programs nearby.

Overdose on the open water is a major cause for concern, as there is no easy access to a hospital at sea. The National Fisherman reports that many fishing vessels in New England are now stocking the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) on their boats as a potentially life-saving tool.

Untreated drug addiction can create a wide range of other issues as well. The Press Herald reports that in 2016 in Maine, 42 commercial fishing licenses were suspended, many of which were due to crimes committed to either buy drugs or hide drug addictions. A suspended license can be disastrous for a commercial fisherman, and there is talk to use this threat to help get people into treatment programs, offering an early return to work if treatment is obtained and the fisherman gets clean. Diversion programs through local law enforcement agencies often serve to get people into treatment instead of prosecuting them for drug-related crimes.

Health insurance is often another barrier to treatment for fishermen, as many are without it. There are several groups dedicated to helping people in the fishing industry obtain insurance and get into treatment programs. Addiction treatment programs are also expanding to be more flexible to be able to help a wider range of people, even those who are at sea for long stretches of time.

Resources for Fishermen and Their Families

Some specific resources for fishermen and people in the fishing industry

Simply put, addiction treatment programs save lives and money in the long run. An addiction treatment program can end up saving families and individuals as much as $12 for every dollar spent when healthcare, criminal justice, and drug-related crime costs are included, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates. This doesn’t even account for possible work-related injuries, lost workplace production, and other potential social costs of addiction.

Without question, getting help for drug abuse and addiction can improve a person’s overall quality of life. Some specific resources for fishermen and people in the fishing industry battling substance abuse and addiction are outlined below.

  • Fishing Partnership: This is organization dedicated to helping fishermen and their families get the support they need to focus on health, wellness, safety, and overall quality of life. The Fishing Partnership Support Services helps fishermen obtain health insurance and also provides professional counseling services for those struggling with mental health or addiction concerns.
  • The Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association: This nonprofit organization is dedicated to improving quality of life for both active and retired fishermen in New England and their families.
  • Maine Lobstermen’s Association: This group strives to help its members get insured and learn how to use insurance to pay for addiction treatment services. The organization also offers support services and resources for commercial lobstermen and their families.
  • Health Care for All (HCFAMA): This nonprofit organization is dedicated to helping the people of Massachusetts obtain healthcare and insurance with a helpline that people can call for detailed information and answers to common questions.
  • Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI): This is a revolutionary program in Gloucester that allows individuals struggling with addiction the ability to turn themselves (and their drugs) into a local police station and be directed into a treatment program without fear of prosecution.
  • Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides this locator tool to help individuals and their families find local treatment options based on a person’s zip code and the type of behavioral health services desired.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): This 12-Step, peer support group has meetings around the world for people from all occupations and walks of life. The group provides a healthy social network for those struggling with alcohol addiction who wish to achieve and sustain sobriety.
  • Narcotics Anonymous (NA): With meeting all over the globe, members of NA help each other maintain sobriety from narcotics, guiding each other through relapse prevention techniques and providing long-term support via local meetings and fellowship opportunities.