Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Opioid epidemic hurting Maine lobster industry; part of 10-part series on opioids in state

Ben Crocker Sr. (right) who said it's hard to hire crew
who are clean, hired Tristan Nelson, a recovering
heroin addict (Press Herald photo by Gregory Rec)
High-paying jobs in the Maine lobster industry have fueled an opioid epidemic, Penelope Overton reports for the Portland Press Herald as part of a 10-part series on opioids' impact on Maine. Last year the state reported 378 opioid deaths, up from 176 four years earlier and only 34 two decades ago, Eric Russell reports in another story. The state, which has the nation's highest percentage of rural population, has an overdose mortality rate of 21.2 for each 100,000 people.

A report from the Maine Medical Association said opioids killed 272 mariners in 2015. One problem is that for years lawmakers have ignored the epidemic in the $1.6 billion-a-year lobster industry, not wanting "to risk tainting the iconic image of the Maine lobsterman, that rough-and-tumble ocean cowboy who braves the elements to hunt lobster, the backbone," Overtone writes. "And the lobstermen were intensely private, preferring to battle their demons on their own and rarely asking for help."

Pat Keliher, commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, said "many of the 42 commercial fishing licenses suspended in Maine last year involved people who broke state fishing laws to buy drugs or hide their addictions," Overton writes. For example, "an addicted lobsterman might haul someone else’s traps to cover bills that had gone unpaid because of a drug habit." Some boat captains, such as Ben Crocker Sr., who fired four sternmen in 2016 for drug use, say it's hard to find clean workers.

Drug use also has led to "trap wars, where one lobsterman cuts the lines on another’s gear because a trap was set over his own or because he suspects the person might have stolen lobster from his traps," including a case last year that caused $350,000 in damages, Overton writes. Also, a lobsterman is currently on trial for manslaughter for last year sailing his boat into a storm, killing two crewmen, while he was high on opioids.

The problem is that the state, like most states with an opioid epidemic, doesn't know how to curb the problem, Overton writes. Arresting people doesn't work, and "suspending a captain’s fishing license can sentence a whole family to poverty and doesn’t address the issue of addicted sternmen, who are unlicensed."

Maine, like many states with large rural populations, lacks treatment centers, Russell reports in another story in the series. According to federal data, "there are 25,000 to 30,000 people with addiction in Maine who can’t get the help they need, because the "demand for in-patient treatment beds far exceeds the supply."

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