Like buds are opening after a long winter of being dormant, many people along the coast are now emerging. They have been hunkering down through the winter storms just waiting to emerge and start work again outside. For many people that means getting to house projects and picking up winter debris from their yards.

For fishermen, however, there is a lot more to it. Even for those who fish year-round, spring is a busy time of ramping up their efforts now that the weather has improved and their catch has become active enough again to be catchable.

Spring is always a busy and somewhat stressful time for fishermen, but this year, there are additional stressors. The market challenges faced during the pandemic have left many fishermen with less of a financial reserve. And, if people in Maine’s fishing industry were banking on things returning to “normal”, they also have to face the reality that what was the old norm no longer exists.

Changes to regulations and gear requirements have added additional tasks to spring lists. These requirements aren’t always easy to navigate or understand, and then there is the expense in time and dollars of making the necessary modifications.

Finances, however, are not the only thing that has been depleted. Emotional reserves are also running low. While spring can feel like a hopeful time for some, it can feel daunting for others. We have come around to being in this pandemic for a year and aren’t all the way out yet, something that many people had been hanging their last hopes on.

Perhaps a silver lining of the pandemic is that mental health, an issue that has plagued many in the fishing community long before 2020, is finally getting some necessary attention and resources. Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (MCFA), a nonprofit trade group dedicated to restoring commercial fishing in the Gulf of Maine, is one of the local organizations working to provide support for the mental health needs of fishermen.

Monique Coombs, Director of Community Programs, has been working for the last year on a pilot program supported by a grant from the Fisher Charitable Foundation to do outreach to the fishing community. Tom Santaguida, a lifelong fisherman has been working closely with her to help raise awareness of the struggles that people are facing right now. “It’s amazing to see how things have changed over my lifetime, even before the pandemic,” he says. “Overall industry happiness and pride is not where it was 30 years ago.”

The pandemic has just been one more level of uncertainty to the already myriad uncertainties in fishing. Santaguida points, in particular, to the web of regulatory issues a fisherman has to negotiate and respond to and without additional funding to compensate them for time and equipment. “Sometimes I feel like I’m hanging on a cliff by one finger,” he says.

But, he isn’t afraid to speak out about his struggles, despite the fact that mental health can carry a stigma. That’s a big part of his role in the project, being a public spokesperson from within the fishing community about the reality of anxiety and depression.

A couple of weeks ago, Hakai Magazine discussed mental health in the fishing community in an article and a webinar in which MCFA was a participant. The purpose was to elevate the awareness of these issues in the fishing community and to provide information for those who are in need of support. Both the webinar and the article offer helpful resources for those who are struggling. In addition, anyone who is seeking help locally can reach out to MCFA staff.

Perhaps we can all take a lesson from the natural world as it tentatively emerges from winter, but will soon be bright and bold with color, by not hiding what may be uncomfortable, but instead sharing struggles as a community in hopes of a vibrant working waterfront for the future.

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