The health of lobstermen: Bait poisoning is a serious matter

First published in Landings, October, 2014.

One of the hazards of handling bait is that bones or sharp fins can puncture the skin which is the body’s first line of defense against infection. Tony Robinson, yard manager of Dropping Springs Lobster and Bait in Portland, said that he gets cuts in his hands just about every day when working with bait. He wears heavy rubber gloves but the fish bones pierce right through his gloves. “Red fish are the worst,” said Robinson.
Earlier this summer Robinson developed a rash on his leg and foot which he thought was a heat rash from wearing boots. He applied some ointment but it didn’t get better so he saw a healthcare provider. He was prescribed an antibiotic but even with that treatment, the infection continued to worsen.

“It started to eat a hole in my leg,” Robinson said. “So they sent me to the Mercy wound care clinic [in Portland]. They said that it was a bait infection.”

Robinson was lucky: the physician who treated him in July at Mercy Hospital’s Wound Healing Center had treated many bait infections. The doctor packed his wound with ointment, covered it with gauze, and also prescribed an oral antibiotic. Robinson explained that as of late September, he was about to be released from his doctor’s care. “I was worried that I was going to lose my foot,” said Robinson.
It’s not only bait dealers but also lobstermen who can suffer from bait infections. Robinson said he’s seen lobstermen with the telltale red streaks up their arms [signs of spreading infection] which required hospitalization with intravenous (IV) antibiotics. “It’s a hazard of the industry,” he said.

A physician’s assistant from the Mercy Wound Healing Center, who asked that her name not be used, said that it’s very important to wash hands thoroughly after handling bait. Bacteria can’t enter the body unless there’s a break in the skin yet it’s important to take precautions. Soiled hands can transmit bacteria to any part of the body where there’s an opening or a break in the skin. She said it’s important if there are any signs of infection such as redness, swelling, or drainage to get medical attention immediately. She also suggested wearing mail (mesh) gloves which may offer more protection from sharp objects than other types of gloves.

Physician’s assistant Alison Wood, who practices at the Isleboro Health Center, said that she treated a number of bait infections while working in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

“Down there it’s called ‘gurry poisoning’ and occurs when an open sore or laceration, usually on the hand or arm, becomes infected when the ungloved hand grabs the bait in the bucket,” she said. “Several days later a red, painful skin infection developed that we would treat on a case-by-case basis. If with oral antibiotics, then a recheck the following day. IV antibiotics if the infection got worse or no better. Or sometimes we would go directly to IV if warranted.”

The general appearance of the bait infections Wood treated was “red, hot, and spreading,” a common description of cellulitis. The patient might not have a fever but “one can feel poorly fairly quickly.”

Wood explained that a MRSA infection (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infection) appear as “a boil-like rash.” She treated a MRSA infection in a fisherman on Isleboro recently which responded well to the antibiotic Bactrim. “Lucky for him, he was much better and stayed on the oral medications versus needing IV,” said Wood.

Willis Spear of Portland, who’s been lobstering for more than 50 years, said that he developed a bad bait infection in his hand back in the 1960’s. He now washes his gloves every day in a bleach solution and also disinfects his boat with a bleach solution. Spear knew of a lobsterman in his area who had to have a finger amputated because of a bait infection.

“You just have to be careful,” said Spear. “I wash my gloves religiously every day.”

Clinic specializes in wound management

The Mercy Hospital Wound Healing Center provides advanced wound healing techniques and state-of-the-art assessment, testing and treatment for people suffering from acute and chronic (hard to heal) wounds.

144 State Street, Portland, Maine 04101


Open Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.


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