Shining a Light on Addiction in the Commercial Fishing Industry

July 3, 2020

If you have been following our blogs, you will have determined by now a constant theme: the commercial fishing industry, unlike virtually every other responsible industry in this country, has failed to establish or even think about establishing the most basic workplace safety standards and programs. Today’s blog highlights yet another area – drug use and opioid addiction in the workplace.

It is an indisputable fact that in most hotbeds of commercial fishing (for instance, New Bedford) opioid use, either purely recreational heroine or injury related opioid addiction, is rampant among the available commercial fishing workforce. (see related article)

These workers are the lifeblood of the commercial fishing industry. Every fish that is put in the boat, of any species, and every dime earned by a vessel owner is extracted from the blood, sweat and tears of the brave fishermen who put their bodies and minds at risk every trip. Yet the vessel owners refuse to do anything to help these workers deal with the many problems, including opioid dependency that is so prevalent. This is outrageous in and of itself given that we are now in 2020, but when compared to every other industry in the country it is shocking.

Every other industry has workplace programs specifically tailored and designed not only to root out drug use in the workplace but, more importantly, to provide the assistance, guidance and professional care that addicted workers so badly need. The fishing industry on the other hand has adopted a don’t ask, don’t tell policy where the vessel owners know full well that fishermen are coming to work with a variety of dependencies and they turn the other cheek with no programs in place as long as fish are being put in the boat and money is being made. Saying that this is irresponsible is an understatement of dramatic proportions. In addition, these vessel owners are perfectly fine knowing these fishermen are endangering themselves and their fellow crew members by being forced to work or allowed to work while dependent on opioids or other drugs and especially when they are using them on a trip. Yet the only time a vessel owner will pay any heed to this is after an injury or, worse yet, a death takes place.  And even then the vessel owner is not trying to help the addicted worker or his family but is instead blaming the injury on that worker while cloaking a defense of the vessel owner’s own negligence in their feigned ignorance and of course by applying post-accident drug testing mandated by Coast Guard regulation in the event of certain injuries or deaths.

Imagine for a moment a heavy equipment operator known to his employer of having a drug addiction problem being allowed to operate heavy equipment in the presence of other workers without any real checks on whether that heavy equipment operator is using opioids when he shows up at work on any given day. Or a truck driver allowed to operate an eighteen-wheeler while having the same problems. Or an airline pilot. Or a railroad engineer. Or an Uber driver.
This type of convenient ignorance for profit is present in only one workplace in the United States and it must change – that is the commercial fishing industry. The rhetoric is obvious. How many fishermen must die before somebody actually does something about it?

We are currently in the process of pursuing claims on behalf of injured fishermen and their families. Even when they have been injured, or worse yet, killed as a result of their own drug dependency on the theory that the vessel owners have completely shirked their responsibility in this regard, it is notable that other sectors of the maritime industry have begun taking measures to root out drug use and dependency in the workplace and provide assistance to those valued members of their labor force who are coping with these problems. It is also time that the commercial fishing industry did the same.

If you or a loved one is dealing with opioid dependency related to injuries or conditions suffered while working on a commercial fishing vessel, or worse yet, you or a loved one have been injured or killed as a result of drug use or dependency while on a commercial fishing vessel please, do not hesitate to contact us at any time. We are here for you in your times of need.