Tom Santaguida of Harpswell, at left, and Alex Todd of Chebeague Island are lifelong fishermen who have found the industry’s increased regulations over the years have made the trade more challenging. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

BRUNSWICK — Through a $5,000 grant from the Fisher Charitable Trust, the Brunswick-based Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association aims to start spreading mental health awareness and advocating well-being for those who’ve invested their lives in the industry.

Monique Coombs, director of marine programs with the nonprofit Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said the 100-plus-member organization will likely use the grant funds to produce informational material for fishermen on organizations they can access to manage stress, anxiety and depression, as well as exercises they can undertake to care for themselves. A website dedicated to those resources could be on the horizon, too.

“We want to have these conversations … to make (people) aware that this is an epidemic in the fishing industry,” Coombs said. “That needs to be considered as these fishermen are dealing with things like climate change, regulation changes and the impacts to their industry, whatever they might be.”

“They’re anxious about their business; they’re worried about finances,” she said. “What if they have to make more changes than they wanted to … what are their financial obligations?”

There is presently no data regarding the number of people in the industry impacted by mental illness, according to Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

“It’s one of the reasons why we’re really interested in starting to dig into this work, because there are a lot of that type of data that’s starting to be collected in other industries, including farming and agriculture,” he said.

“The problem is out there; very little is being done to have these types of conversations in our fishing communities,” Martens added.

Commercial fishing can also be a dangerous trade. Coombs cited a Center for Maritime Safety and Health Studies report that states from 2000-2016 the industry saw a fatality rate of 115 deaths for every 100,000 workers – significantly larger than the average of four deaths per 100,000 workers among all workers in the U.S.

“Many commercial fishing operations are characterized by hazardous working conditions, strenuous labor, long work hours, and harsh weather,” the report states. “Common hazards include vessel disasters, falls overboard, and a variety of gear and equipment onboard.”

The agriculture industry has a strong model of preventative and reactive programs for their harvesters, something Coombs hopes to emulate for fishermen to “help humanize and preserve a significantly important industry.”

She hopes fishermen will find solace in connecting with other people in the trade who face the same challenges.

“It’s a pretty isolating industry, when they’re out there by themselves on their boat,” Coombs said, adding that her organization’s effort is “just a matter of starting somewhere, and making progress toward a solution.”

Like the sometimes smooth, sometimes turbulent nature of the sea, commercial fishing is a trade with many peaks and valleys, successful and difficult years alike, Harpswell fisherman Tom Santaguida said in an interview alongside Alex Todd of Chebeague Island.

“This past year was horrible,” Santaguida said. “I have twin boys at the University of Maine in Orono; I have no idea how I’m going to pay that bill. Two years ago, no problem.”

In the tougher years, he watches other parents take their children on vacations when he cannot.

“There are big fluctuations; that causes a lot of stress,” and depression as well, Santaguida said.

He started fishing when he was 8, and Todd began at age 6, both about 50 years ago. Lobstering is the main income-generator for both.

“The activity of fishing, even with all its challenges – whether you’re 500 miles offshore or in the bay – is not stressful to me,” Santaguida said.

The increased number of regulations cause him a great amount of stress. Regulations such as the days of the week one can fish and where one can fish, can be stressors, Todd said.

Todd, a 10th-generation Chebeague Island fisherman, said his ancestors “went fishing, came in and sold it, and all they had to be was a decent fisherman. Now you have to be a lawyer, a politician … You wonder if the state or the feds are going to shut you down. … There are just so many different things, at least for me, anyway, that are in the back of my mind all the time about what the next year’s going to be like.”

“Regulations obviously serve a purpose,” said Jeff Nichols, communications director with the Maine Department of Marine Resources. “They help us manage the resource and enforce those laws that are designed to sustain the resource.”

Martens drew a connection between changing regulations and the stress fishermen feel.

“It’s often very easy to say regulations are the problem,” he said. “But I think it’s the uncertainty that the regulations and the regulatory process have for a lot of these fishermen when they feel like they’re outside of it.”

Having more of a say in that process was one of the reasons the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association was founded in the first place, Martens said.

Comments are not available on this story.