A reputation for drug use has long followed the Massachusetts fishing fleet, whose fiercely independent crews often return to port flush with cash and ready to exhale after long and dangerous trips.
Some fishermen link that reputation to a rugged cowboy culture; others to the pain medication taken by men and women whose bodies are battered by the job. But now, as opioid deaths rise relentlessly in Massachusetts, fishing captains from Cape Ann to Buzzards Bay are beginning to stock their boats with naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses and is commonly sold under the trademark Narcan.
“This is a mayday call for the fishing industry,” said J.J. Bartlett, president of Fishing Partnership Support Services, a nonprofit agency in Massachusetts that addresses health and safety issues. “Ambulances don’t go where fishermen fish.”
In Gloucester, an estimated six fishermen have overdosed at the docks in the last three years, including one Maine man on March 1, said John McCarthy, the interim police chief.
In New Bedford last year, heroin was discovered on six of 11 outbound boats searched randomly in drug raids over two days. Eight arrests were made.
The Fishing Partnership has begun training fishing crews in New Bedford to administer Narcan. In Gloucester, an estimated 40 captains each left a recent training session with two four-milligram doses of the antidote, enough to revive nearly every overdose victim.
The organization and its collaborating groups are thinking big: They hope to distribute Narcan to every commercial fishing vessel in the state. More training is being considered for Scituate, Plymouth, Chatham, and elsewhere.
“We’re not looking the other way,” said Angela Sanfilippo, who works in Gloucester for the Fishing Partnership. “We believed it was time to bring it out.”
The push to bring Narcan to the fishing fleet is the latest move to expand its availability as the region fights back against the opioid epidemic. An increasing number of first responders — including many police, firefighters, and other emergency personnel — now carry the antidote.
Boston-based lobsterman Steve Holler has joined the effort. For one, he knows first-hand the need for pain medication just to get through another punishing day of lifting 50-pound traps, over and over, for decades.
Holler’s right elbow has been completely rebuilt, bone has been lost from his spine, and the 54-year-old keeps a cane in his car. He said he once plowed through 120 Percocets a month, although he no longer takes the opioid.
“Fishing has crippled me, but this is what I do,” Holler said as he painted the red waterline of the November Gale, prepping the boat for his 40th season on the water.
But there’s another reason Holler works with the Fishing Partnership to spread the word. His 28-year-old stepson died in 2013 of a heroin overdose. The man was not a full-time fisherman, but sometimes he would work on the boat to make enough cash to buy another fix, Holler said.
Holler’s son was not alone. Crew members sometimes show up high, and sometimes they overdose at sea or at the dock.
“A lot of times, you can’t tell,” said Robert Dunne, a 37-year-old fishing captain out of Gloucester. “The guy meets you down at the boat in the morning, they get in the bunk while you’re steaming out, and you don’t know what’s going on until you yell down that you need him.”
Fishermen and industry observers stressed that opioid abuse is rampant in much of society, and they argued that the men and women who go to sea are no more vulnerable to addiction than their land-based peers.
But there’s little question opioids have spread through parts of the fleet.
“It’s frightening,” Gloucester Assistant Harbormaster Jamie Crawford said of the opioid epidemic. “It’s not getting better, that’s for sure.”
Crawford recalled one incident in which a returning crew member locked himself in the boat’s head while at the dock. He overdosed in the time it took the captain to step ashore and sell his fish, Crawford said.
“Sometimes you have boats where the whole crew is on it,” Dunne added in a separate interview. “That’s their business. It’s mainly kind of a lifestyle for those guys. They have long hours, and they’re in a lot of pain.”
The New Bedford raids were conducted partly to draw attention to the problem, said Major Patrick Moran, who is chief of the coastal bureau of the state Environmental Police and who helped coordinate the searches.
Owners and captains had complained to him and New Bedford police about drug-related safety hazards on their vessels, where a crew member’s mistake can be catastrophic.
“Our intent was not a lot of arrests but to bring the problem to the forefront and try to get help for the people that were apprehended,” Moran said.
Despite their rough-edge exterior, many fishermen struggling with drug dependence seek help. When the Fishing Partnership ran a health plan, Bartlett said, the rate of substance-abuse treatment for fishermen was three times that of a comparable insurance offering.
“You combine the physical pain, the access to pain medications, and a job that is one of the most stressful in the country, and that is a recipe for substance-abuse disorder,” Bartlett said.
The Fishing Partnership has joined forces with the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, an organization that helped make Gloucester a national pioneer in confronting opioid abuse and expanded across the country.
In that old fishing port, addicts can walk into the police station and ask for help, turn in illegal drugs without being charged, and be steered to treatment almost immediately. Now, the net has been cast toward the sea.
“We’re already talking to other law-enforcement agencies in hopes of expanding it to other fishing fleets,” said John Rosenthal, a Boston-area developer who is co-founder and chairman of the police initiative. “We’re hoping over time it becomes as integral to safety training as CPR.”
Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken, who is vice president of the Fishermen’s Wives Association, also wants Narcan carried on the many whale-watch, charter, and party boats that often carry 1,000 passengers a day out of Gloucester.
The effort is new, but the benefits have been immediate.
One of the 40 Gloucester fishermen who received a Narcan kit on March 31 already has used the drug to revive an overdose victim on land, according to Allie Hunter McDade, executive director of the police initiative.
That’s the latest example of why the program is being pushed.
“The way we look at this, Narcan should be in everybody’s first-aid kit,” said McCarthy, the Gloucester police chief.