This is the latest story in an ongoing New Bedford Light series examining the far-reaching impacts of addiction.
As the crew of the clam vessel Lori Ann prepared to set out from Fairhaven, the fleet manager was told that something wasn’t right with a fisherman below deck.
The manager climbed down into the cabin. There, he recalled, he found Thomas Post, a 48-year-old deckhand and father of two. The manager had worked with Post for years, and described him as an eccentric mentor to the young crew.
But on Oct. 8, 2021, Post was sitting upright at the galley table. He was naked. His eyes were wide open. His skin was cold. He had no pulse. Post, who often slept on the boat the night before fishing trips, had died that morning due to the combined effects of fentanyl and cocaine.
Post was just one of at least 70 New Bedford fishermen who died of drug overdoses in the five years between 2018 and 2022, according to state death records analyzed by The Light.
Drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for commercial fishermen in Massachusetts, records show. The vast majority of those deaths involve fentanyl. Since 2015, the powerful synthetic opioid has killed fishermen more than anything else. More than car crashes. More than work-related accidents. More than heart disease or cancer.
“This fentanyl is just everywhere,” said the manager who found Post dead in 2021. “I haven’t seen anything like it.” Earlier that same year, he recalled, a 24-year-old deckhand didn’t show up the morning of a fishing trip. When the fisherman’s mother came to pick up his last check, she told the manager that her son had died of a fentanyl overdose the morning of the trip.
Sign up for our free newsletter
Drug addiction is not new in the fishing industry. There is a tragic and long-understood pattern of fishermen using opiates or amphetamines to manage the chronic pain and endless hours that come with hard labor deep at sea.
But the introduction of fentanyl has altered this pattern.
In recent years, both fishermen and addiction counselors in the area say drug use has actually tended to be less pervasive on the waterfront than at any other point in the last few decades. Captains say they are more strict about enforcing a “zero tolerance” policy on their vessels, due to the high risk of fentanyl overdoses leading to death. Many keep Narcan, the opioid-overdose antidote, stocked on their boats and are aware of the outreach programs available to fishermen.
But fentanyl has raised the stakes for fishermen continuing to struggle with addiction. What was once a dangerous habit in the fishing industry has often become an indiscriminate death sentence for even recreational use. Fentanyl, the synthetic opioid, is 50 times stronger than heroin, and can be found in just about any drug bought off the street. Today, drug use tends to be less common amongst fishermen — but it is deadlier than ever.
“These days, with fentanyl, you don’t get a second chance,” said Deb Kelsey, a recovery coach with the Fishing Partnership in New Bedford. “Fentanyl is in cocaine. It’s in fake prescriptions. That is what is killing people.”
From heroin, to painkillers, to fentanyl
Three decades ago, heroin was the waterfront’s dominant drug. In 1996, The Standard-Times reported that 50 fishermen from New Bedford and surrounding communities had died of drug-related causes in the previous five years. Crew members, out at sea for weeks at a time, often shared needles to inject heroin, leading to a parallel epidemic of HIV and AIDS that coursed through the industry.
Since then, opioids have maintained an unrelenting presence on the waterfront. But their form has changed. In the early 2000s, prescription painkillers like Percocet and Oxycodone eclipsed heroin, fishermen say. The pills were often prescribed for work-related injuries such as back pain, they say, which set some fishermen down a path of dependence and ultimately addiction. And in the last decade, fishermen say, fentanyl has become nearly the only drug that’s cheap and readily available on the waterfront.
Tyler Miranda has lived through that transition.
In 2003, Miranda, a third-generation fisherman from New Bedford, set out on his first commercial scallop fishing trip. He was just 18 years old. On that trip, he stashed a small package of white, 5mg Percocet in his duffel bag.
“It was innocent,” Miranda said. “It was just in case I needed it, it would be there.” But over time, those pills came to take over his life, sending him into a long and dark spiral of addiction. It led him through jail, and separation from his young child, before he pulled himself out of addiction through faith and determination to set his life back on track.
Miranda, now 38 and a widely respected captain of two scallop boats in New Bedford, says he feels grateful and lucky that he got sober before fentanyl took hold in the industry.
Resources for fishermen and others
▸ The Fishing Partnership offers recovery coaching free of charge to commercial fishermen. Captains or crews can request Narcan training for their boat. The Fishing Partnership has locations in New Bedford, Chatham, Plymouth, and Gloucester. 508-884-6661, fishingpartnership.org/narcan
▸ The Massachusetts Substance Use Helpline provides access to treatment and recovery services. 24/7 helpline: 800-327-5050, or text 800-327.
▸ The Massachusetts Behavioral Health Helpline also offers access to treatment and recovery services. To reach a counselor, call or text 833-773-2445. masshelpline.com
“Coming up, it was something people lived with. They were captains, mates, and it was known they were active in addiction. They just lived that way,” he said. “But the drugs have changed. If the timeline had been different — if I had just started messing around with that stuff now — I don’t know if I would have gotten through it.”
Three decades after The Standard-Times published its 1996 series, the fishing industry has constricted under tight regulations and consolidation of the fleets. There are fewer fishermen today than in 1996. But the number of New Bedford fishermen who have died of drug-related causes has continued to swell from about 10 a year (between 1992 and 1996) to about 14 a year (between 2018 and 2022). It is an increase of 40 percent.
Of the 70 local fishermen who’ve died of drug overdoses since 2018, all but five had fentanyl in their system at the time of their death, records show.
As a captain, Miranda says there is less tolerance in the industry today of allowing even recreational use on boats. “For many years, it was almost accepted,” Miranda said. “It was: ‘Leave the fishermen alone. They’re down there. Let them do their thing.’”
“We can’t just turn a blind eye to it now,” he said. “The risk is so much higher.”
Hard-working outreach programs, like the Fishing Partnership, pound the docks to provide training in Narcan. Kelsey said many captains and fleet owners have reached out to her to schedule training sessions and supply their boats with Narcan. And an unofficial network of fishermen like Miranda offers support to other fishermen battling addiction.
Still, some fishermen slip between the cracks.
Michael Kennedy was a towering figure on the New Bedford docks. He stood at 6 feet, 5 inches tall and weighed close to 300 pounds. Since he was 17, he’d worked hard on countless fishing boats out of New Bedford: lobster boats, longliners, draggers and scallopers.
The lifestyle suited him, his family said. “The fishing industry was kind of this up and down, so it felt normal to him. He was like that, too,” said his brother, Chris. It was a constant state of fluctuation. Kennedy had struggled with substance use since his early 20s, his family said, and as he slipped deeper into it, the fluctuations of his life grew more extreme.
Kennedy would be sober for months, then relapse with no warning. He would work at sea for weeks at a time, and then spend months on the dock looking for work. He could make upwards of $10,000 on one fishing trip, but still need to borrow $50 before making his next. His body would fill to his natural weight of about 300 pounds when he was sober, but quickly dwindle to an unnaturally gaunt figure once he was using again.
Kennedy fell into addiction by accident, his family said. They believe it started with a line of cocaine that was laced with either fentanyl or heroin. “Ever since then, he was chasing that high,” said his other brother, Shaun. “He was chasing it and trying to get away from it at the same time.”
Kennedy overdosed multiple times before his last. He had long struggled to balance the challenge of maintaining sobriety with the demands of working at sea. He had lived in multiple sober homes. “He needed the structure, the discipline,” his stepmother said. But he found that the sober homes wouldn’t hold a bed for him if he left on a fishing trip for weeks at a time. “That just made it so much harder for him,” she added.
On the morning of Aug. 12, 2022, Kennedy was found dead in the driveway of his Somerville apartment, which he had been renting with others he had met at a sober house. Death records show that he died due to the combined effects of fentanyl and cocaine. He was 32 years old.
When addiction cuts fishermen’s lives short, they leave things behind. Some are physical: foul weather gear and boots left on deck or an unmade bed in the cabin of their boat. On the E.S.S. Pursuit, the crew hung the final knot tied by a longtime mate who died of a fentanyl overdose in April of this year.
Some leave behind loving families grieving the loss of their son, husband or father. Others leave behind a painful sense of closure: losing someone that had been lost to drugs long before.
“He’s not in our lives anymore,” said Wendy Amaral. Her ex-husband, Devlin, a fisherman in New Bedford, died of a fentanyl overdose in 2020 in a field beneath the Route 195 overpass. He was 48 years old. “Once drugs got a hold of him … He hasn’t been in our lives for a long time.”
Michael Kennedy’s family said they are left with the memory of his love and their grief over who he could have become.
At the time of his death, Kennedy’s family had started to believe that he had finally made it through his long struggle with addiction. He had lost many friends and co-workers to overdoses in recent years, they said. “That scared him more than anything, losing his friends,” his stepmother said.
After surviving his most recent overdose, Kennedy had checked into a rehab clinic himself for the first time in his decade-long battle with addiction. He had been sober for nine months, and had just taken a job on a tugboat out of New York City, in order to stay away from the fishing industry and the Port of New Bedford, which his family said tended to lure him back into the habits he was trying desperately to avoid.
One week before his final overdose, Kennedy visited Provincetown. There, he got a tattoo of a pirate on his arm. His family said it seemed to symbolize both the sense of freedom and the danger that defined his life. In his parents’ Fairhaven home, his father and brothers each rolled up their sleeves, revealing the same tattoo, which they each got in the days following his death.
“It’s a way to remember him,” his brother said. “It’s how we remember him.”
Email fishing industry reporter Will Sennott at firstname.lastname@example.org.