The head of the Maine Department of Marine Resources has come out against a proposed bill to study the high rate of addiction in commercial fishing.

Patrick Keliher said a task force bill that will be introduced by Rep. Mick Devin, a Newcastle marine biologist who sits on the committee that oversees Keliher’s agency, focuses too narrowly on one industry. Keliher acknowledges the commercial fishing industry has a drug addiction problem, but no more so than any other line of work. Addiction is an issue that transcends the fishing industry, he said.

Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher, seen at a legislative hearing in April, says Maine’s commercial fishing industry has a drug addiction problem, but no more than any other industry. Staff photo by David Leaming

“While I applaud any effort to address the issue of drug addiction in Maine, I believe this bill focuses too much on one industry, when many others are impacted,” Keliher said in a statement Tuesday to the Press Herald. “This is an issue of statewide significance. Addiction does not discriminate. It affects many different professions, and any effort to address addiction should acknowledge that.”

Keliher said he shared his concerns about the creation of a special addiction task force with Devin, as did members of his staff, before Devin asked the Legislative Council to green-light his bill for consideration by the Legislature when it returns in January. In even-numbered years, the Legislature tries to limit debate to emergency bills. Last week, the council decided, in a 6-4 vote, that the task force bill met that emergency threshold.

Devin proposed the task force bill after two lobstermen from his district complained about the number of young fishermen using drugs before going out to sea to work. It struck a chord with him because he knows of fishermen who have died while using drugs, and he thinks the issue poses a threat not only to their safety, but to the safety of those who work on the water with them. He said it also poses an economic risk to Maine’s marine economy.

Devin has yet to write the bill – he decided to get approval to submit it before he spent time writing it – but he said the task force would have two objectives: to try to figure out the scope of the addiction problem in the industry, and whether it is higher in certain age groups, geographic areas or sectors of the business; and to determine if there are addiction, recovery or prevention issues unique to the fishing community.

He said the task force was not meant to stigmatize or punish users or the crucial industry, valued at $700 million in 2016.

The state already has a task force to address the opioid crisis, but a member told Devin its work wouldn’t consider any one specific profession, or its risks or challenges.

The bill is likely to go to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, not the Marine Resources Committee, for discussion. “It’s a health issue, not a fishing one,” Devin said.

Devin made that comment on Monday, before Keliher came out against the bill. Devin could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

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 in March at the Fishermen’s Forum, 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.”

On Tuesday, a spokesman for Keliher said the commissioner stood by his statements to the Press Herald and the Fishermen’s Forum, but said creating a task force that singles out fishermen wrongly implies the industry suffers from addiction more than others. Keliher has no reason to believe that fishermen struggle more with addictions than any other profession, spokesman Jeff Nichols said.

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.