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  • Writer's pictureMonique Coombs

Fishermen Wellness: Moral Injury

Moral injury refers to the psychological and emotional distress experienced when individuals witness or participate in actions that violate their moral or ethical values. It typically occurs when individuals perceive themselves to have transgressed or witnessed transgressions against deeply held moral principles. When someone experiences moral injury, it can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, anger, and moral conflict.

In the commercial fishing industry, moral injury can manifest in several ways:

Increasing regulations imposed on fishermen

While regulations aim to protect marine ecosystems and ensure sustainable practices, they can also create burdensome compliance requirements and restrictions that may conflict with fishermen's traditional practices and livelihoods. This conflict between conservation goals and the economic realities of the industry can lead to moral distress.

Photo by Scott Gable Photography

Gear technology

Innovations in fishing gear may be designed to increase efficiency, reduce bycatch, and minimize environmental impact but transitioning to new gear or fishing methods requires that fishermen abandon traditional practices passed down through generations. This transition can evoke feelings of moral conflict and loss of identity, further exacerbating moral injury.

Although some may view the role of rope in the life of a lobsterman as unimportant, it actually holds significant cultural and heritage value within fishing families. For a young fisherman starting out, obtaining their own rope for lobster traps becomes a crucial step in establishing connections with others in the community. The presence of rope in the dooryard symbolizes that a fishing family resides in a particular home, and fishermen even choose to tattoo rope designs on their arms as a mark of their identity. Furthermore, the ability to splice and tie rope is a skill possessed by numerous fishermen. While it may seem like a straightforward solution, it is crucial to acknowledge that removing rope carries more than just a financial cost for fishermen -- it also imposes a significant mental toll on them.

Offshore wind development

Offshore wind projects involve the displacement of fishing grounds and potential interference with fishing activities. This displacement threatens the livelihoods and cultural heritage of fishermen, leading to feelings of injustice and moral distress as they face challenges to their way of life. This is also exacerbated because most fishermen perceive the damage that will be caused by increasing development on the ocean.

How fishermen are portrayed in the media

Negative perceptions and sensationalized stories highlighting environmental damage or illegal practices can perpetuate a poor public image of the industry. This negative perception can cause moral distress among fishermen who genuinely care about sustainable fishing practices and feel unfairly judged and stigmatized.

Moral injury in the commercial fishing industry arises from conflicts between regulatory demands, technological advancements, offshore wind development, and media portrayals. These conflicts can lead to moral distress and psychological turmoil among fishermen, as they navigate the complexities of maintaining their livelihoods while striving to adhere to ethical standards and preserve their cultural heritage.


More about moral injury

The term "moral injury" was first coined in the 1990s by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who used it to describe the profound psychological wounds experienced by military veterans. However, the concept has its roots in the work of psychoanalyst Robert Jay Lifton, who studied the psychological effects of war on veterans. Since its initial conception, the understanding of moral injury has expanded beyond the military context to include other professions and individuals who have been exposed to morally challenging situations.

A straightforward example of moral injury is when someone becomes a doctor with the intention of helping people but realizes that a large amount of their time is spent on paperwork. Moral injury can also occur when the doctor has to prescribe medications that their patients can't afford and when they are forced to rush through appointments to meet a patient quota. These conflicting situations can lead to moral injury, causing the doctor to feel intense frustration, guilt, and a sense of being disconnected from their original goal of providing compassionate care to patients.

Listen more about Moral Injury in these podcasts



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