Maine’s $1.6 billion lobster industry disrupted by opioid abuse

One of America's most life-threatening jobs has become even more dangerous.

The national opioid abuse crisis has sprawled out so aggressively in recent years, few professions remain unscathed. Librarians in Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco have learned to treat ODs in the stacks. Ohio factory owners can’t rustle up enough employees who will pass drug tests to fill their open positions. The construction industry is contending with abuse rates at twice the national average. And now, we learn that opioid blowback has reached even the Gulf of Maine’s salty lobster industry and its notoriously proud—and private—lobstermen.

In Maine, a state that contended with at least one fatal overdose every day last year, CBS News reports that the lobster industry has been particularly hard hit. Following the Portland Press Herald‘s unparalleled 10-part series last April, we get a clear picture of a don’t-ask-don’t-tell industry, where many bosses are willing to overlook your drug use if you get your work done.

We’ve all known about the people who use. My best friend’s son overdosed. My stern girl is a former addict. But nobody knows what to do about it.

The CBS piece focuses on the economic—versus the human—impacts of opioid addiction: Lobstermen are spending their disposable income (and at times, their robust seasonal salaries) on drugs rather than on the necessary business of living. And that costs the local economy. “We know that millions of dollars of income that otherwise should have been spent in our coastal communities is being lost to heroin and diverted to prescription drugs,” economist Charles Rudelitch said in the story.

Surely this is a peripheral harm, dwarfed by the very real concerns about a dangerous, demanding industry that turns a blind eye to drug addiction among its ranks. The human toll on addicts and those they live and work with—commercial fishing consistently ranks as one of the most life-threatening industries in America—bears the most scrutiny.

Yet right or wrong, we all know that economics can drive social change as much as compassion or shared humanity. And Maine lobster fishing, a $1.6 billion dollar industry, has a monumental impact on the state’s overall economy. Anything that threatens to disrupt that windfall will be addressed, irrespective of the human toll on the ground.

There isn’t any data that show how many of Maine’s 376 overdose deaths last year were lobster fishermen. Anecdotally, however, the impact seems disproportionately high. The Press Herald piece featured an array of lobster industry workers; they all seemed to know at least one person who had OD’ed. “We all know people who’ve died,” said Dave Cousens, president of the Maine Lobsterman’s Association. “We’ve all known about the people who use. My best friend’s son overdosed. My stern girl is a former addict. But nobody knows what to do about it.”

And there’s the rub. Even if the lobster industry is being hit excessively by opioid abuse, no one has figured out effective ways of mitigating the harm. Addiction has been found at fault for much of the lobster industry’s theft and malfeasance (including this tragic 2014 manslaughter case), yet solutions are in short supply. The same qualities that give lobstermen such an enigmatic reputation—independent, laconic, self-sufficient—can make it difficult to spot addiction, or to start real conversations between a captain and their crew.

In an ideal world, employers would follow the lead of this West Virginia popsicle company, recognizing the existence of a real problem, not pointing fingers at victims, and opening honest dialogue about struggling and recovery. It certainly won’t solve such a malevolent crisis, but it’s a start.

Jesse Hirsch is The Counter's managing editor. Before he joined the team, he was an investigative food editor at Consumer Reports. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, VICE, Eater, and The Guardian.