Keeping Our Heads Above Water
Keeping Our Heads Above Water was written by Monique Coombs and originally published in the July issue of Commercial Fisheries News. You can find CFN and subscribe at https://fish-news.com/cfn/
There were a few days in March when I had a difficult time catching my breath because I was feeling so anxious. I wasn’t having panic attacks; I just couldn’t get the space necessary to settle my breathing. It felt like, if you will, I was unable to keep my head above water.
I’ve been married to a fisherman since 2004 and I have been working for the fishing industry since 2008. During that time, the industry has faced more than its fair share of obstacles. But where in years past the length of time between the challenges allowed me space to gather my bearings, lately it seems like the bumps just keep coming one after the other.
Maybe they aren’t even bumps anymore; they are crashing waves... and I think that’s what is making me so much more anxious than usual: like so many fishing families right now, we are feeling that we have very little control over the future of our family’s fishing business.
To be honest, when I married a fisherman, I’m not sure I knew what I was getting into. It took me a couple of years to realize that I couldn’t really make plans with my husband because everything “depends on the weather.” For a while, it seemed as if scheduling was one of our biggest obstacles as a fishing family ... but we figured it out. It’s tough for me to reconcile that A.) my husband is a fisherman; B.) I work for the fishing industry; and, C.) that, despite our combined knowledge and experience, we still struggle to understand the complexities of fisheries management; what needs to be done in order to accommodate new rules; make gear changes; and the reasoning behind certain rules in some areas and not others. These struggles drive feelings of job insecurity and foster a sense of helplessness.
In psychology, learned helplessness occurs when an individual continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable situation and stops trying to change their circumstances – even when they could do so. Fishermen, for instance, are familiar with the feeling that their input is not consistently taken into consideration in a meaningful way – and many of them find it difficult to continue to engage in issues that have the potential to impact their businesses: “It doesn’t matter what we do, anyway.”
In the non-fishing world, job insecurity stems from a fear of being replaced by younger workers – or loss of employment due to downsizing (or specific jobs becoming unnecessary). I think job insecurity for fishermen is a relatively new phenomenon, brought on by recent existential threats such as offshore wind development and the federal government wrongly holding Maine lobstermen accountable for the decline of the right whale population. Combine learned helplessness with job insecurity and you have a perfect storm of stress and anxiety that are felt by fishermen, their families, their friends, and their communities.
All hope is not lost, however.
Fishermen are resilient, intuitive, and really good at their jobs – and, as they have always done in the past, they will persevere. But it is important to acknowledge and give name to all the costs a fisherman must manage to operate a fishing business: financial, physical, and mental. You must consider all of these expenses to know how much money and energy you need to recover. Fishermen are very aware of the financial costs of their business but sometimes fail to include the cost of their health.
Research has shown a direct relationship between job insecurity and mental health impairment; people who experience learned helplessness are also likely to experience symptoms of depression, elevated stress levels, and less motivation to take care of their physical health. Knowing these things (and acknowledging them as costs associated with operating a commercial fishing business) helps to identify solutions for supporting health and creating opportunities to recover. Speaking with a counselor, taking days off, going for a short walk after dinner, and even just sitting with a heating pad are all good ways to take care of yourself to recover from hauling or having to listen to a Zoom meeting about the newest threat to the industry.
The other important aspect to understand about health costs is that the ability to identify them supports better communication and advocacy for fishermen and the industry. Commercial fishing has been dehumanized for a long time, meaning that the aspects of the industry that provide human satisfaction have been ignored. Some management tactics and threats from the large offshore wind industry and environmental non-profits further dehumanize it by diminishing the role of fishermen in both the commercial fishing industry and food system. Examples include using images of fishermen and working waterfronts in political ads to move non-profit missions forward with little action to support fishing
businesses – or on an offshore wind development company website.
Reducing fishermen and working waterfronts to symbols that are open to interpretation (rather than upholding the historically significant culture and industry that they actually represent) is dehumanizing.
“The Lobster Trap” – an article featured in The Boston Globe and The Portland Press Herald this past January – is the epitome of dehumanization: the story lacked nuance and was myopic in its presentation of fishermen from Vinalhaven, suggesting that their way of life was outdated and disappearing. The story was also diminishing to fishermen who work tirelessly to support their families, the environment, and their businesses. Failing to acknowledge the changes and threats to the commercial fishing industry that create stress, anxiety, and fear deprived the story of any human qualities and reinforced the dehumanizing narrative that currently exists. (You can read MCFA's response The Lobster Trap here.)
Another thing that makes me lose my breath sometimes is that I know how dangerous fishing can be.
According to the CDC, commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous civilian occupations in the country. I don’t like to think about why fishermen have to write their vessel name on the back of
their survival suits. The other day, I received a phone call to confirm that I was listed as an SOS contact for my husband when he was setting up some new system. The voice on the other end asked me if
I accepted the responsibility and I wanted to say no. I absolutely do not want to accept that responsibility.
It says a lot that – despite the risk, lack of control, and number of obstacles put in the way of fishermen – they keep showing up. Perseverance, tenacity, grit, and the ability to manage adversity are
not just humanizing qualities, they are strengths that will enable fishermen to endure.
To learn more about Fishermen Wellness, please visit mainecoastfishermen.org/Fishermen Wellness.
For more information and mental health support, you can also visit namimaine.org.
The National Suicide Prevention hotline is 800-273-8255.
Together, we persevere.