Hakai Magazine

Fisherman hauling back dragger net on fishing trawler
Commercial fishing is physically demanding, and, at times, dangerous. But challenges in the industry—resulting from injury, trauma, economic uncertainty, and more—also impact fishermen’s mental health. Photo by Jeff Rotman/Alamy Stock Photo

Mental Health and the Modern Fisherman

With support from their advocates, fishermen are starting to confront the toll that dangerous working conditions, economic and environmental uncertainty, and ever-changing regulations take on their minds and bodies.

Authored by

by Christina Couch

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Watch the recording of our webinar “Mental Health in the Fishing Community” for more on this topic.

In 2005, Randy Cushman spent two days trolling through the Gulf of Maine, searching for Gary Thorbjornson’s body. Thorbjornson was family—not by blood, but in all the ways that really count. The men had grown up together, fishing the gulf’s waters since they were kids, and the intervening decades had sculpted their lives into similar shapes: careers in commercial fishing, marriages at about the same time, children of about the same age, and a tight-knit fishing community around Port Clyde, Maine.

While fishing on a foggy day in mid-July, the distress call came through: Thorbjornson’s boat was flooding, and the crew were panicking. “We have to get the fuck off this boat,” Thorbjornson yelled. By the time Cushman arrived, the crew, including Thorbjornson’s own son, were alive and safely aboard a rescue boat, but their fishing vessel was at the bottom of the ocean and Thorbjornson had vanished. The search began, hours lapsing into days as teams traversed the waters, looking for a body that might offer the Thorbjornson family a scrap of closure.

“His father called me, told me to stay,” Cushman says. “The coast guard gave up and then the other boats. I stayed like four to six hours longer and I called him back and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. It’s killing me.’”

Port Clyde, Maine

Port Clyde is one of the many fishing communities on the Maine coast. Although the town once had several canneries and fish processors, none of these operations remain. Today, lobster is the primary fishery. Photo by George and Monserrate Schwartz/Alamy Stock Photo

Thorbjornson’s body was never found. Cushman still carries the weight of his death, and the years since have made that weight heavier as two more of Cushman’s close friends have lost their lives at sea, one in 2006 and one in January 2020. The most recent event has pushed Cushman to consider seeking counseling, but for years, he quietly shouldered the trauma and grief on his own, as many other fishermen do.

In Brunswick, Maine, 90 minutes west of Port Clyde, Monique Coombs has watched this silent stoicism play out over and over again in fishing communities. Coombs is the director of community programs for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (MCFA), a nonprofit trade group dedicated to restoring commercial fishing in the Gulf of Maine. She’s seen fishermen just like Cushman endure the pain of lost loved ones, life-changing injuries, economic hardships, and the barrage of stresses endemic to the commercial fishing industry without seeking help, and she’s seen the legacy of depression and substance abuse that often follows. These problems have gotten worse, she says, ever since COVID-19 disrupted the state’s US $674-million seafood industry, shoving already unstable families even closer to financial collapse. But Coombs has a plan to fight back. Just over one year ago, her team won a grant to launch a pilot program aimed at addressing mental health in commercial fishing communities. The grant, awarded by the Fisher Charitable Foundation, is small—only $5,000, all of which goes to producing informational materials on managing anxiety and depression. But Coombs has much bigger ambitions.

Monique Coombs

Monique Coombs is the director of community programs for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (MCFA), a nonprofit trade group dedicated to restoring commercial fishing in the Gulf of Maine. Coombs also advocates for better mental health supports for fishermen. Photo courtesy of Brittany Hyde

She hopes to create a broader mental health support program for fishermen—the first initiative of its kind in the United States—that will be replicable throughout the country. Modeled after Farm Aid, a nonprofit that offers financial support and mental health resources to agricultural workers and their families, Coombs’s project has two aims: to combat the stigma and accessibility obstacles that prevent fishermen from seeking help, and to shed light on the psychological fallout that comes when a constant onslaught of destabilizing factors pushes an industry, and its workers, to the brink.

Even while doing a job he loves—one that leaves him feeling tired, but happy, at the end of a good day—Tom Santaguida battles forces that leave him mentally exhausted. Santaguida has hauled in shrimp, fish, and lobster from the Gulf of Maine for nearly 50 years, and over that time, fishing has become more of an identity than an occupation. In the lobstering high season, from June through October, Santaguida works 70-hour weeks, sometimes longer, pushing his muscles and stamina to the limit as he hauls in hundreds of traps, each weighing roughly as much as a five-year-old child. The work is back-breaking and sometimes dangerous, but what really causes Santaguida stress is money.

COVID-19 has dealt a significant blow to Santaguida’s Brunswick-based business—his 2020 income dropped by more than 50 percent in response to low catches and disrupted seafood markets—and it’s a hit that comes on the heels of decade after decade of environmental shifts and increasingly stringent regulations that have steadily chipped away at the high-season paydays that sustain Santaguida’s family during the winter months. He gets angry. He fights to keep the stress away from his home life. He drinks too much, and is working to cut back, but every low-catch day and every new regulation adds more energy-draining complications.

“The stressors in the fishing community are burdens that most industries don’t even come close to touching,” he says.

There isn’t a lot of direct data on mental health within commercial fishing communities, but the research that is available paints a grim picture. In the United States, commercial fishermen, often grouped with workers in agriculture, forestry, and hunting industries, show suicide rates double the national average and workplace fatalities 29 times higher than average. In Massachusetts, just south of the Gulf of Maine, workers in these occupational categories (minus hunting) are far more likely than the average worker to be prescribed opioids to manage work-related pain and injury, and about five times more likely to die of opioid-related causes. Scientific literature from across the globe echoes these problems. A handful of studies on fishing communities in Australia, Malaysia, Canada, and India and news reports from England and Scotland confirm that higher rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, and substance abuse bleed into fisheries beyond the United States.

In the Gulf of Maine, fishermen interviewed for this story said that much of the stress comes from regulation, which has changed significantly in the last few decades in response to sharp drops in fish stocks and changes in the types of catch coming into the area. Groundfish—meaty, bottom-dwelling species that anchor the seafood industry—are in rapid decline. Cod, for instance, a fish once abundant enough to have a namesake cape nearby, has plummeted 90 percent since 1982, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Despite more than a 90 percent reduction in catch limits over the last decade, gulf cod stocks are now at three to four percent of levels considered sustainable, while the broader Maine cod industry shrank from $9.43-million on average in the early to mid-1990s to just $240,000 in 2019.

Cod end of fishing trawler net full of redfish, pollock,lobster and dogfish sharks. Georges Bank, New England

A trawler brings to port its haul of redfish, pollock, lobster, and dogfish caught on the Georges Bank off the coast of Maine. Photo by Jeff Rotman/Alamy Stock Photo

The waters tell this story over and over again. Research shows that certain species of haddock, hake, eel, monkfish, pollock, crab, quahog, mussel, and shrimp have all slipped into precipitous decline, and while some like the yellowtail flounder show signs of rebound, others collapse without return, like the Gulf of Maine Atlantic salmon, whose fishery closed in 1948.

There are myriad reasons why groundfish are struggling—overfishing stemming from miscalculated catch limits is a prime one. But the unique impact climate change has had in the region plays a role as well. The gulf sits at the nexus of a tangle of ocean currents, “the messiest rat’s-nest sailor’s knot you can imagine,” says Nick Record, an oceanographer who studies ecosystem modeling at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine.

A complicated system of currents, some coming from the subtropics and others coming from the Arctic, determine the gulf’s temperature, but as the Arctic warms, these chilly currents slow down, making way for more toasty, subtropical water. The gulf is also geographically designed to favor shallower currents thanks to two raised banks lying beneath the water. Together, these banks create a sharp drop-off between the Gulf of Maine and the Atlantic, limiting how well frigid, low-lying currents can penetrate the gulf’s watery mix, says Record.

Pile on other warming factors, such as hotter atmospheric temperatures worldwide, and the result is a region that’s warming faster than 99.9 percent of global oceans and shows no signs of slowing down.

These accelerated climate shifts translate to fish loss, both in terms of lower spawning numbers and survival rates and of some species moving north out of the gulf to find colder water. These changes make it tougher for struggling fisheries to rebound, even when tight regulations are in place.

The warmer temperatures aren’t just pushing fish out, says Kimberly Oremus, an assistant professor who researches marine policy at the University of Delaware. They’re affecting fishermen, too. Oremus compared decades of data from a climate index called the North Atlantic Oscillation to labor numbers among New England fishermen for the same time period. She found that climate variability directly translated to job loss: between 1996 and 2017, fluctuations in the climate index reduced county-level fishing jobs in New England by an average of 16 percent.

“What we see is a lot of quick unemployment when you get a bad year, and if we see that variability increasing due to climate change, people can’t weather those shocks,” she says.

In 2012, the US secretary of commerce issued a formal disaster declaration for northeast groundfish fisheries, bringing $32.8-million in federal aid to New England fisheries nearly two years later. The aid was split three ways—one-third to direct-support payments to fishermen, another to buyout and buy-back programs for those willing to exit the industry, and the remaining third split among states to allocate as they saw fit. The relief package may have eased some stress for fishermen in the short term, but many fish stocks are struggling to rebound.

Steven Scyphers, a sustainability scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, is one of the few people in the world who has studied the social impact that falls on fishermen when fish decline. In the wake of the cod fishery crash, Scyphers’s team surveyed a random sample of more than 100 local fishermen shortly after the 2012 disaster declaration, then another random sample five years later. They found that stress from the collapse didn’t let up. Half a decade after the declaration, about one-third of fishermen reported feeling severe psychological distress—a number nearly identical to those who reported it in 2013. Scyphers also found evidence that fishery management and regulation are directly tied to stress: low levels of trust in fisheries management emerged as the most powerful predictor of psychological distress, both immediately after the collapse and years later.

“When we look at fisheries management, we see a lot of discussion over the biological status of a stock, how healthy or unhealthy it is,” Scyphers says, adding that social and psychological health of fishermen should also factor into assessing how well a fishery is doing.

The stress brought on by regulation is one reason why Santaguida is working with Coombs to promote mental health support for commercial fishermen. Santaguida started noticing regulations impeding his livelihood starting back in the late 1990s, when researchers began documenting groundfish declines and legislators passed a new slew of reforms in response, on the heels of other reforms passed earlier in the decade.

It started with lost permits. After focusing on lobstering for a long stretch of time, Santaguida says that he tried to pivot back to catching groundfish only to realize that new rules rendered his pricey groundfish permits defunct. Next came mandatory tags for lobster traps; a cost was set at 20 cents per trap in 1996, according to the Bangor Daily News, and has since escalated to 50 cents. That was followed by a series of cuts to groundfish catch limits and a reduction in the maximum number of traps per vessel that lobstermen in Santaguida’s zone could have out—down from no limits in 1996, to 1,000 traps three years later, to the current limit of 800 starting in the year 2000.

Lobster fishermen off the coast of Maine

Lobster fishermen off the coast of Maine prepare their traps. Lobstering is a demanding profession, requiring physical strength and long hours often in challenging sea conditions. Photo by Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo

Over the last two decades, Santaguida estimates that he’s spent between $50,000 and $75,000 just to keep up with new legal requirements. That figure includes at least $16,000 spent updating ropes and gear to stay in line with reforms aimed at protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales, as well as incremental cost increases on things ranging from bait to licensing fees. It also factors in uncompensated work time, including more than 160 hours Santaguida says he’s spent across four catch seasons maintaining logbooks required to keep his licenses. (A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Marine Resources could not confirm exactly how much individual fishermen pay to keep up with regulations, but said that “there’s been a significant cost for sure.”)

Santaguida says that he supports necessary steps to protect Gulf of Maine ecology, but deeply resents individual fishermen bearing the financial burden of those reforms.

Fishing is hard, but “it’s probably the least stressful thing in my life,” he says. “It’s all the other stuff around it, the crazy government regulations, the bureaucracy you have to deal with just to be able to go do your job, the unfunded mandates … those are the things that are making us just collapse mentally as a group.”

Suzanne Arnold, a marine scientist at the Island Institute, a nonprofit community development group that promotes sustainability in coastal Maine, studies how climate change impacts Gulf of Maine communities that depend on fishing. She says that one major challenge facing seafood harvesters is that regulations are set by separate regional, state, and federal bodies that “don’t communicate all that well with each other,” and, in some cases, each has jurisdiction over different species, creating complications as catch swims from one jurisdiction to the next.

Arnold adds that there’s also a disconnect between the scientists collecting the data that drives fishing regulations and the fishermen affected by those laws. Research sometimes isn’t conducted in conjunction with fishermen who see oceanic changes, like shifts in fish abundance and distribution, every single day. This disconnect leads to battles over population estimations and catch quotas—usually for certain species of groundfish—which fishermen have long argued are not in line with the gulf’s true ecology.

Those numbers are especially important in light of how difficult it is for fishermen to switch up the species they catch. Kathy Mills, an ecologist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute who studies climate adaptation in fisheries, says that quota allocations, permits, and licensing requirements, many of which are issued for individual species, prevent fishermen from quickly pivoting to species like black sea bass, summer flounder, and Jonah crab that are coming into the gulf along with warmer waters. How well the seafood industry will (or won’t) be able to capitalize on these new catches is tied to both market demand and “whether the regulatory environment can keep pace with those changes and make those species accessible to fishermen,” Mills says.

How quickly that regulatory environment adapts to the needs of fish and fishermen isn’t just an economics issue, it’s also a psychological one, says Alex Todd, a 10th-generation fisherman and interim chair of the board for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (MCFA). Stress in the fishing community, and the social problems that stem from relentless waves of it, is often chalked up to physical dangers of the job, but the real thing that wears families down is the low and steady thrum of fear that they may not survive financially from one season to the next. The anxiety, he says, “is largely just trying to make sure that you actually can fish.”

Fisherman preparing trawler

In recent years, organizations around the world have been working to help address the mental health challenges that result from a profession that is physically demanding, dangerous, and susceptible to vagaries in weather and economies. Photo by Cultura Creative RF/Alamy Stock

Successfully navigating regulation is only one piece of the financial stress that comes with commercial fishing. In Louisiana, George Barisich has seen his seafood harvesting business collapse at least six times in the last 30 years. Some instances can be chalked up to massive disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, while others are due to less-publicized causes, like toxic algal blooms that decimated oyster populations in 2015. Regulation, he says, prevents fishermen from cashing in during good seasons so they have a financial, and indirectly psychological, buffer to help weather the bad seasons.

“To be a commercial fisherman, you have to be optimistic because you go out there and you’re either gonna catch something and make money, or you’re gonna break something, or you might not come back,” he says. “All that weighs heavy on your mind. The fact that you cannot make the profit that you should, even though there is a resource … it just beats you down.”

Coombs had always known about the blanket of anxiety fishermen live under, but she began really understanding the individual threads of stress a few years ago after fishermen in Portland, Maine, became concerned about a local rezoning proposal that included a wharf some used for their businesses. Recognizing that changes to the working waterfront were happening all along Maine’s coast, the MCFA commissioned a report to better understand the impacts on fishermen. Coombs began interviewing fishermen throughout the state and found that anxieties extended far beyond development projects. Across more than 60 interviews, the same themes surfaced: stress, fatigue, chronic pain, helplessness.

Having battled anxiety and depression herself, Coombs felt called to action. She applied for the $5,000 Fisher Charitable Foundation grant, not knowing that the need for mental health support would envelop her own community just weeks later. The news came in pieces: a boat capsized off the coast of Portland, reasons unknown. Two bodies found floating. One identified as fisherman Chris Pinkham, the other as Captain Arnold “Joe” Nickerson IV, chair of the board for the MCFA.

Portland, Maine

Portland, Maine, is home to the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, which advocates for fishermen throughout the state. This includes ensuring access to working waterfronts. Photo by Ron Buskirk/Alamy Stock Photo

News of the deaths ripped through the gulf fishing community, so the MCFA brought in help. Executive director Ben Martens reached out to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Maine to provide grief counseling for staff and anyone else in the community who needed to talk. Coombs saw the impact and the opportunity to build something bigger than what the grant could cover. She recruited NAMI to write blog posts on mental health, organized a list of counselors local fishermen could turn to, and convinced the MCFA to pick up the tab for counseling sessions costing up to $100 per hour for any fishermen who needed it. A separate grant, awarded by the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, is currently covering those counseling costs. It’s a start, one that’s virtually unprecedented in the United States, but providing support to the level of Farm Aid, which offered $7.1-million in stress assistance in 2020 alone, will require more, Coombs says—more time, more money, more infrastructure.

Outside of Maine, a smattering of small-scale programs are addressing the psychological components of the fishery business. In southeastern Canada, the Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association (PEIFA) funds free, confidential counseling sessions to the roughly 3,000 fishermen and crew who power the island’s seafood industry, as well as to their families. Established in late 2018, the program addresses fisher-specific issues as well as more common family matters like marital problems, eldercare concerns, and parent-child relationships. Ian MacPherson, PEIFA’s executive director, says that the initiative is as much about economics and safety as it is about mental health.

“If a crew member is going through a challenge at home or in their personal life [and] they’re maybe getting distracted and are not performing at the level that they usually do, there’s a cost to that,” he says.

About 50 people used the program in 2019, and new clients trickled in during 2020, but spreading the word that these mental health resources exist and getting fishermen to access them are often significant challenges. To reduce stigma and get fishermen in the door, the SeaFit Programme in the United Kingdom packages mental health support alongside physical health services. Nigel Taylor, a fisherman in Cornwall, England, originally learned about SeaFit when a truck offering free dental exams parked at his local dock. Taylor started getting regular dental treatments and, later, lab services like blood sugar and cholesterol tests.

Five years after first spotting the truck, Taylor and a crew member were trawling for John Dory when a fire sparked in the boat’s engine room and quickly spread beyond control. Both men jumped ship with only minutes to spare, then watched the boat Taylor had spent the previous 18 months preparing for sea burn down to a metallic skeleton in the ocean.

After Nigel Taylor’s boat caught fire and was destroyed at sea, the fisherman from Cornwall, England, experienced PTSD and eventually accessed mental health services through a local program, SeaFit. Video courtesy of Nigel Taylor

Commercial fishermen have “all had close shaves. We all have situations where things could have gone either way, but when you’re younger, you just brush it off,” Taylor says. “This time, I couldn’t brush it off. It was really, really locked in there, really locked in there.”

Taylor received treatment for PTSD and fully recovered. He says that asking for help was easier because he was already comfortable with other SeaFit-affiliated care providers and support was available right at the port.

“It’s there and it’s easily accessible. You can sort of slip away and have a chat, you know, make an appointment,” he says. “If you had to go to your doctor and say, ‘Look, I’m not feeling right’ and then he had to pass you on to somebody else and they pass you on, you would never do it.”

Many fishermen never seek help, even those who have been through exceptionally difficult traumas.

In June 2011, Charles Nash spent 15 minutes trying to breathe life back into one of his crew members. It happened at the tail end of a six-day fishing trip as Nash and his crew were battling heavy storms during the 18-hour journey back to Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. Winds rocked the boat violently enough to throw crew members out of their sleep bunks. Eric Keeping, a veteran fisherman who was still recovering from a recent surgery, said that he couldn’t breathe and ran outside. Nash followed and Keeping told him to go back inside. When a crew member checked on him a few minutes later, they found Keeping lying on deck. They brought him inside and Nash administered CPR, but his friend couldn’t be revived. In the 15 hours it took to bring Keeping’s body back to shore, Nash played the event back in his mind and thought of how he would tell his own father, Keeping’s longtime friend, about the heart attack.

Nash never sought professional help. He went through that summer “pretty messed up” in a mental fog, and doesn’t remember much about life in the months after the accident. Nash adds that he now knows that mental health resources exist, but money, tight schedules, and pride prevent fishermen from actually accessing them.

“If you start dragging in dead bodies or working on people or CPR or anything like that, we should have a system in place where it’s mandatory, go see a psychiatrist, go see a counselor, just talk about what happened,” he says. Later he adds, “when you think of a fisherman, you think of the old guy in boots with the big beard and the pipe. That guy’s not gonna ask for counseling.”

Knowing how much support services are needed, and how reluctant many fishermen are to seek them out, is part of what motivates Coombs to keep steadily building her mental health support infrastructure. A deep love of her fishing community also drives her. In addition to launching a depression and anxiety awareness campaign locally, Coombs threw her weight behind the federal Home-Based Telemental Health Care Act of 2020, a bipartisan proposal that would have allocated up to $10-million each year to expand telemental health services for rural families in the farming, forestry, and fishing industries. The bill didn’t pass, but Coombs believes the fact it was proposed at all is proof that mental health issues in communities like hers are gaining more attention and that there are efforts to fight against the stigma around getting help.

“Fishermen, just like everybody else, deserve happiness and a good life,” she says. “If they’re feeling weighed down for other reasons, then we need to find the support for them to be healthy.”