State Department of Public Safety reaches out to fishermen in effort to combat opioid abuse

The Haines Portage Cove Harbor. Commercial fishermen throughout the state received a letter warning of the dangers of opioids this summer. (Emily Files)

Earlier this year, Governor Bill Walker issued a disaster declaration to combat opioid abuse in Alaska. Since then, more time and resources have been dedicated to the issue. This summer, some of those efforts are aimed at getting the attention of the fishing community.

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“We haven’t had something of this magnitude before,” Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan said on a visit to Haines. “I’m an old guy, I’ve been an old cop for a long time. And there were surges in the 60s and 80s and 90s with different types of drugs. But they usually have flared out, usually by this time. This one is a long one.”

This summer, commercial fishermen throughout the state received an unusual letter from Monegan warning of the dangers of opioid abuse. The letter warns of the devastating effects of opioid abuse and the state laws against carrying drugs on the water.

“It’s not just about fishermen, it’s about lumberjacks, it’s about concrete pourers and everyone else out there,” Monegan said. “We’re working with the pharmacies, we’re working with doctors, we’re trying to get this thing – arms around as many people as we can. And then hopefully the more we grab and have them join us in this effort, the more we’re going to save.”

Sam Cotten is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He explained why the state is conducting this kind of outreach to fishermen.

“You know there’s a lot of people that I’ve heard from, especially in smaller fishing communities, that have expressed concern about especially young people in their communities that are struggling with drug use in general and opioids in particular,” Cotten said.

Though the letter was sent specifically to fishermen, the commissioners say its part of a wider effort, and they’re not singling out one industry.

“What we were all trying to do is reach out to as many different types of populations as we could, to heighten the awareness of the situation that we have with opioids and other drugs,” Monegan said.

Cotten said commercial fishing is already a dangerous job.

“There are a lot of, even this year we’ve had deaths and a lot of injuries. So any impairment, alcohol or other drugs in addition to opioids also raise the danger level on a fishing boat or in a lot of other industries as well,” Cotten said. “We all know that the fishing industry can be a dangerous place to work. Drug use or alcohol abuse aboard a vessel increases that danger.”

Monegan said the governor’s disaster declaration has allowed for a greater focus on opioids.

“He declared it a disaster, just like an earthquake or a forest fire,” Monegan said. “That way we can put more resources – we have bi-weekly meetings on it, we have updates, we try to brainstorm everything that we can to get the word out to everyone else.”

Both Haines and Skagway are focusing on combating drug abuse on a local level. In the last year, the Haines Public Safety Commission formed a drug awareness task force.

In March, highly addictive opioids like fentanyl were stolen from the Haines clinic. The police have announced no developments in that case.

An opioid task force got its footing in Skagway earlier this year.

Monegan and Cotton hope their outreach will help commercial fishermen avoided adding risks to an already dangerous job.

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