Nine years ago, a young “wrinkler” drowned when he was swept away by the rising tide in Lubec Channel.

Kristopher Fergerson, 27, was picking periwinkles, a small edible snail, with a friend to make ends meet after losing his job as a carpenter. The medical examiner labeled his death an accident, but state Rep. Mick Devin, D-Newcastle, a shellfish commissioner, blamed it on drugs. Toxicology results found morphine, Diazepam and ethanol in Fergerson’s blood, records show. The harvester stayed out too long because he needed money to buy drugs, Devin said.

“That was almost 10 years ago, and you’d hope things would have changed, but it’s only gotten worse,” Devin said. “His death has always stuck with me, but I know that it’s still happening. Fishermen are still dying from drugs. Fishermen in my district are telling me that young guys are using drugs and going out to work on the water every day, and that’s dangerous – for them, for the people they fish with and for our local fishing economy.”

Devin wants the Maine Legislature to create a task force to investigate the high rate of addiction among Maine’s commercial fishermen. Last week, a bill that Devin wants to submit to create that task force got a green light from the Legislative Council, which must approve all bills for consideration during even-numbered years when Maine tries to limit legislative debate to emergency matters. The council voted 6-4 in favor of considering the task force bill.

It was one of 99 bills submitted for council consideration last week, and one of only 30 deemed to meet the threshold for consideration. The council also green-lighted bills to promote higher wages for families through education and training, address rising electricity delivery costs and improve oversight of how Department of Health and Human Services investigates abuse cases. In October, it also approved 63 legislator bills for consideration.

The task force bill, which Devin is still writing, likely will be assigned to the health and human services committee once the session starts in January. But he already has talked to Commissioner Pat Keliher of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, which oversees Maine’s $700 million fishing industry, about the need to measure the scope of the industry’s addiction problem and find ways of beating it.

For years, industry leaders and regulators ignored drug use in Maine’s signature industry, but Keliher talked about the abuse with the Portland Press Herald this year for a series of stories on Maine’s opioid epidemic, including one that focused on the lobster industry. He went on to talk about the issue publicly at the Fishermen’s Forum in March, which is the biggest commercial fishing industry event in Maine.

“Addiction is a disease and it is a problem within this industry,” he said. “I am certainly not making the statement that it is everybody in this industry, but it is a problem.”

There is no way to compare heroin use among Maine fishermen with any other profession. The state doesn’t keep its drug use or death statistics that way, and it will not identify the 376 drug overdose victims in 2016, including 313 who died of heroin or other opioids. According to the Maine Attorney General’s Office, 185 Maine residents died from a drug overdose in the first six months of 2017.

Addiction takes an economic toll, too. Keliher said many suspended commercial fishing licenses involved people who broke fishing laws to buy drugs or hide their habits.

And drugs can make an already dangerous profession lethal.

Police believe lobsterman Christopher Hutchinson was using OxyContin, marijuana and alcohol when he decided to sail his boat into a storm in 2014. His two sternmen died when it sank. The Cushing man is charged with seaman’s manslaughter in the deaths and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted when he goes to trial in February.

While Devin is aware of the Hutchinson case, he said he wants to help fishermen who have become dependent on drugs, not punish them. Two retired lobstermen drove home the point with Devin: “‘Everyone knows it’s happening, and Augusta needs to do something about it,’” Devin said. “So this is me, trying to do just that, trying to bring together the right people to make a difference.”

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PLOvertonPPH