Fishing with a Spinal Cord Injury

by Corey Young, OTS, UNE and Maine FishAbility

Also published by Commercial Fisheries News April 2022

According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, approximately 17,700 spinal cord injuries (SCIs) occur each year in the United States, with men accounting for about 78% of cases. The highest risk of obtaining a SCI is while driving. Fishing with an SCI definitely presents barriers, but it’s not insurmountable. The level of function an individual has is determined by where on the spinal cord where injury occurs. Those with back injuries may experience paralysis in the legs, but still use their upper body to accomplish fishing tasks. Those with neck injuries may experience paralysis in arms, trunk, hands, and legs and still have successful fishing careers with modifications.

For many people with SCIs, there is a loss of sensation at and below the level of injury, possible loss of bladder/bowel control, and difficulty with balance. Loss of sensation may result in secondary injury, such as burns or heat rash that leads to time off of work. SCIs can be very limiting and disrupt an individual’s daily activities dramatically, but with the right support, adaptation, and new techniques, commercial fishermen can still participate in their livelihood.

Adaptations for fishermen can include using an extra sternman for assistance, using remote cameras to increase access and vision, installing adaptive hand controls and using high visibility materials and objects. Fishing with SCIs may require additional self care considerations such as:

  • Weight shifting often to avoid pressure wounds.
  • Managing bowel/bladder functions to prevent accidents.
  • Drinking enough fluid and maintaining healthy eating habits to aid in wound prevention.
  • Being conscious of limbs to avoid contact with extreme cold or heat to reduce wounds.
  • Safe transfers to and from the boat may require additional help and equipment like lifts.
three lobstermen smiling in a lobster boat
L to R: Bo Redman, Steven Taylor, Gabe Taylor. Photo courtesy of S. Taylor.

For lobsterman Steven Taylor, he wasn’t going to let his injury stop him from doing what he loved. He became injured 16.5 years ago from a hunting incident, and lives with a cervical spinal cord injury that resulted in quadriplegia. Fishing has always brought him an abundance of joy and being on the boat is where he feels most himself.

How long have you been doing this work?
I grew up in Cutler with 3 other brothers fishing and we all still fish in the community. Fishing makes me feel whole and normal. After the fall I didn’t know what to do, but with the help of good friends and the community, I was able to get back to fishing.

What is something unexpected that you have learned?
Not a lot of people know about SCIs. There are a thousand things you figure out with time, from personal care, to fishing, and body temperature control.

Is there something you would tell your younger self?
The whole fishing industry has evolved but with hard work you can do anything. Live within your means and work hard, oh, and don’t climb trees!

Favorite Piece of Equipment?
The boat of course. This gets me on the water! My favorite thing right now is getting hoisted in and out of the boat when a tourist is watching me. They stare at me, and I get a chuckle out of it.

What is something you would not leave the dock without?
The crew! I also use my GPS and plotter when on the boat to help navigate.