One Square Mile: Opioids In New Bedford's Fishing Industry

Feb 7, 2018

(This is the first part of a two-part story. Read part two here.)
 Commercial fishing consistently ranks as one world’s most dangerous jobs, which may help explain why fishermen have been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. 

In this next story in our series, “One Square Mile: New Bedford,” Rhode Island Public Radio's health reporter Lynn Arditi visits the Port of New Bedford. Here's part one of the two-part story.

Captain Mario Gonsalves drove up to the docks one December morning to find his fishing boat caked with ice. A storm was coming and he wanted to get another run in before it hits. One of his crew used a sledge hammer to smash ice off the boat’s roof.

Gonsalves and his five-man crew fish for whiting, squid and scup year round -- in all kinds of weather. It’s a lot of lifting and pulling on slippery decks, often at night. So he said can’t risk having someone on his boat impaired by drugs or alcohol.

“Right now we drug test all the time,’’ Gonsalves said. “We never used to do that but since a couple months back we started drug testing everybody….You don’t want somebody that’s all high and stuff playing with machinery to hurt somebody.’’

His crewman, Drew, (who asked that we not use his full name) used to be one of those guys. “I got hooked on Oxycontin way back…”

Drew said he was in his mid-20s when he started abusing painkillers. That was after he blew his knee out, and then he hurt his back in a boating accident.

“And then I had surgery on my back also, and I got prescribed pain medication,’’ he said. “And it was just when I stopped taking it I was like going through physical withdrawals and I was trying to work at the same time.”  

That’s when he realized he had a problem. Drew said that when he injured his back he was fishing off the coast of Maine. He’d gone down to his bunk to grab a pack of cigarettes, and a big wave hit the boat. He was thrown off his feet, and the bottom bunk smacked into his lower back.

For months, he continued to work -- until he started losing feeling in his feet.

After surgery, his doctor prescribed Oxycontin for pain.

“I mean they give it to you and you, you know, you just get hooked,’’ he said. “You know before that, I messed around and drank a few beers here and there but I didn’t do drugs. “

Physical pain is a constant for many career fishermen, which may help explain their reputation for drinking and using drugs, said Debra Kelsey of the nonprofit Fishing Partnership Support Services, which provides services to fishing families around New England.

“Fishermen have always had a stigma of being drug addicts or drunks,’’ Kelsey said. “Growing up in New Bedford I didn’t know much about fishermen but those were the things I did hear.”

A 2005 study by the Fishing Partnership found that insurance claims for substance abuse treatment in fishing families were three times the rate of the general population.  

“It’s very strenuous,’’ Kelsey said. “There’s back problems, neck problems. So that obviously leads to more opioids being prescribed to these guys who have to use their bodies so hard.”

Even so, Kelsey didn’t realize just how widespread opioid use had become on New Bedford’s docks. Her wake-up call came in February 2016, when a 57-year-old fisherman was found passed out on a boat, a syringe nearby.

A few weeks later, police found heroin on six out of 11 outbound fishing boats searched during random drug raids. The drugs, police said, were intended for use at sea.

“I realized that it is here and it is present and it is everywhere,’’ she said, “and so something needed to be done.”

Kelsey now trains fishermen to administer Narcan, the brand name for a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose. But she says it wasn’t easy getting fisherman on board with the program.

“Most of the pushback was from captains and or boat owners,’’ she said. “You know, ‘I don’t allow them to do drugs on my boats.’  Well, did you know that an overdose can happen up to three hours after a drug is ingested?”  

So a fisherman may be miles out at sea by the time the drugs take their full effect.

(This the first part of a two-part story. Read part two here.)