Maine Lobstermen Struggle in Silence with Heroin Epidemic

By Paul Gaita 04/06/17

A new report examined the opioid epidemic's impact on the lucrative lobster industry and its workers in Maine. 

A lobsterman throwing a lobster trap into the ocean.

Opioid overdose deaths soared by 40% in the state of Maine in 2016, claiming 378 people and surpassing the previous record of 272 fatalities set in 2015. Heroin and fentanyl were among the primary causes of death, prompting an outcry for greater access to treatment that was unfortunately met with dismissal and, at times, inflammatory statements by the state's controversial governor, Paul LePage. As the opposing sides continue to debate the issue, an industry key to the state's income and identity is struggling to contend with a growing heroin problem within its ranks.

Maine fishermen caught more than 130 million pounds of lobster in 2016 alone, which added more than $500 million to state coffers; the crustacean, and the individuals who catch them, have long been among the most widely identified elements of the state's culture and history. But as a 10-part report on heroin in Maine from the Portland Press Herald notes, the lobsterman industry has not been spared from the opioid addiction epidemic that plagues the state. What complicates matters for them is a combination of limited treatment resources and the insular nature of their community, which favors silent struggle over speaking out for help.

"It's nobody's favorite topic, that's for sure, but there's no denying it's a problem," said Dave Cousens, a lobsterman and president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. "We all know people who've died. We've all known about the people who use. But nobody knows what to do about it."

As the report notes, state drug statistics do not show if any of the 313 people who died specifically as a result of heroin or other opioids in 2016 were lobstermen—and while some communities have begun to talk about addiction, others have kept its presence quiet. That stoicism is part and parcel of the Maine identity, and lobstermen in particular. 

"Mainers are a proud people who don't like to ask for help," said Dan Johnson, director of the Acadia Family Center in Southwest Harbor. "A lobsterman is probably the most 'Maine' you can get. They don't want to talk about their feelings." But as overdose and addiction numbers among both younger and veteran lobstermen continue to mount, that silence may no longer be an option. The lobster industry is a lucrative target for out-of-state heroin dealers: lobstermen often have large amounts of disposable income due to the cash payouts at the end of the season, and can afford to fuel an expensive daily addiction until the money runs out. Lobster boat captains often look the other way if crew members are sick, provided they can still perform their jobs.

When the money does run out, addicts in the lobster industry, and in Maine in general, have few options for treatment. Church-based recovery ministries—like Machias Christian Fellowship's Arise Addiction Recovery House—provide some assistance, but detox centers are few and far between. Twelve-step program meetings are also scarce in major lobster ports like Vinalhaven, and access to Suboxone is equally limited—just two doctors are allowed to prescribe the drug on Deer Isle, where the state's largest lobster port is located. Those that do have access to medical treatment are often unable to meet requirements like daily methadone shots or therapy sessions, due to the long and unpredictable hours of lobstermen. Many also lack health insurance to pay for treatment, though those numbers have declined since 2014 due to coverage through the Affordable Care Act.

Legal options are also limited. The state lacks the funds to conduct random drug testing, and the Coast Guard and Maine Marine Patrol have their hands full dealing with territory feuds and gear theft among fishermen. The state does have the right to penalize those who are guilty of breaking fishing laws, including the revocation of licenses, but that loss can have a disastrous effect on a lobsterman's livelihood, and in turn, negatively impact the industry.

Despite those factors, the lobstermen's association favors strict punishments for members that are convicted of breaking state laws, including mandatory minimum punishments for certain crimes that would require license revocation and fine repayment. "We want addicts to get the help they need, but people who aren't following the law don't belong out there on the water with the people who do," said Cousens, the association's president. Commissioner Pat Keliher of the Department of Marine Resources is exploring a consent agreement process for suspended fishermen that would allow them to return to work if they submitted to regular drug testing and treatment. The state is also making strides to increase treatment options, including an additional $3 million for expanded treatment for as many as 400 patients on MaineCare insurance, or those who lack insurance. 

Ultimately, the health of the individuals working in Maine's lobster industry may rely on their ability to rise above their natural reticence to discuss problems and reach out to others who are struggling in their community. Joshua Kane, a Bar Harbor lobsterman who is recovering from a nine-year addiction to heroin, knows firsthand how silence can contribute to the toll of the disease. "It's hard to get fishermen to talk about the kinds of things that make us drink and do drugs," he said. "Feelings don't fly in this industry, you know? But keeping quiet isn't working, either."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.