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Bait poisoning can be life-threatening

Punctures from rockfish, a common lobster bait, can lead to bait poisoning. NOAA photo.

Fish handler’s disease, also known as bait poisoning, occurs when bacteria are introduced into the body through cuts in the skin. Handling and processing bait or lobsters can lead to scrapes, cuts, and punctures even when wearing gloves. The spines and fins of species such as redfish and horned sculpin or the shells of lobster are particularly dangerous. Normally, your skin provides a protective barrier to keep bacteria and pathogens from entering your body. But even the smallest scrape or cut on your hands can break this barrier. “These sea creatures can potentially harbor certain harmful bacteria and cause a serious skin infection,” said Jordan Porter, a doctor of nursing practice and a family nurse practitioner at the Down East Community Hospital. Bacterial infections should not be taken lightly. Left untreated, an infection might require hospitalization or even amputation of an extremity. General signs of infection include redness, pain, swelling, or drainage from a wound. In addition, a person may or may not have a fever. These signs indicate that your body’s immune system is fighting against the foreign bacteria and that the situation could quickly deteriorate. Medical professionals can determine the severity of the infection and provide the correct course of treatment to ensure proper recovery. Bob Baines, lobsterman out of Spruce Head, was flying back from an out-of-state fisheries meeting when he noticed something odd about his arm. “We were sitting on the tarmac and I looked down and there were red lines running up my arm,” he recalled. “I got home late in the afternoon, grabbed a beer, and walked over to my mother-in-law’s house next door. She is a registered nurse. I didn’t even finish my sentence when she said, ‘You get to the hospital now.’ I had heard about but never experienced it myself and never knew how dangerous it was.” In the few hours that it took for Baines to get to the hospital and see a doctor, the red lines had already progressed past his elbow. Baines was treated with two rounds of IV antibiotics that were able to stop the infection successfully. It could have ended very differently if he hadn’t gone to the hospital when he did. “As a fisherman I knew what it was, but I didn’t realize how dangerous it was. I thought, ‘Ah, it is just an infection,’ but they told me that it could have gone to my heart and killed me,” he said. Baines’ recommendation to other lobstermen: “Don’t waste any time.” Sternmen may be at particular risk for bait poisoning because they often handle bait more than the captain. “Lobster fishermen who directly handle lobster or spiny fish are at highest risk for bait poisoning,” said Porter. “Certain pre-existing skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis can predispose individuals to secondary bacterial skin infections. Other conditions like diabetes and smoking can make individuals more susceptible to skin infections like bait poisoning and can delay wound healing.” You can take steps to protect yourself and your crew from bait poisoning. Proper and thorough hand washing after handling bait is an important step to reduce transmission of bacteria. “Always wearing a thicker pair of gloves like blue vinyl gloves (not cotton gloves) while handling lobsters and spiny fish is the number one way to prevent bait poisoning,” Porter said. “Good hand hygiene and regularly changing gloves are also important. If you get cut, promptly washing the site with mild soap and warm water helps reduce the likelihood of contracting bait poisoning.” Mesh gloves may provide additional protection from sharp objects. You should also consider steps such as disinfecting gloves and work surfaces with a bleach solution on a regular basis to reduce the overall presence of bacteria. If you think you might have bait poisoning, Porter suggests several immediate steps. “Immediately cleanse the wound with fresh tap water and gently scrub the wound with mild soap and water, removing any foreign material. Once cleaned, applying an over-the-counter topical antibiotic like Bacitracin ointment and a Band-aid is helpful until you can be seen by a health care provider,” he said. Porter emphasized the importance of checking with a medical professional. “Early consultation with a health care provider is key to a good outcome. Since lobstermen frequently use their hands, early recognition and treatment is critical to preventing complications like loss of hand function, a deep bone infection, or bloodstream infection.” Baines’ advice to fellow lobstermen is blunter. “You know when it is infected. Just go spend the money .”


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