Dying for Lobster

Impoverished divers comb the Mosquito Coast for 'red gold' and pay the ultimate price

| January-February 2005

Bob Izdepski understands the perils of deep sea diving. For three decades, the 53-year-old father of eight from Lacombe, Louisiana, worked as a commercial diver on oil rigs, surveying the ocean floor at depths down to 500 feet, one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet.

So when Izdepski first visited the Mosquito Coast along the Nicaragua-Honduras border to witness the working conditions under which lobster divers (buzos de langostas) operate, he was horrified. “I had my epiphany,” he tells Mark Jacobson in the Natural Resources Defense Council’s OnEarth (Fall 2004). “I understood that I was a diver, I made my living as a diver, that diving was my life—and that what was going on in La Miskitia was the moral Armageddon of the diving world, a slow-motion underwater genocide.” In 1995 Izdepski co-founded SubOceanSafety, a nonprofit group that seeks to improve working conditions for the Miskito Indians who comb the Caribbean Sea searching for what’s known locally as “red gold.”

Over the past two decades, lobster fishing has exploded into a $50 million industry in Nicaragua and Honduras. The prized crustaceans now account for nearly 10 percent of Nicaragua’s foreign trade. Roughly 90 percent of that harvest ends up in the bellies of American and Canadian consumers. U.S. corporations such as Darden Restaurants, owners of the Red Lobster chain, and Sysco, a wholesale food distributor, are the primary customers.

These companies insist that they only purchase lobsters that are captured in traps, not by divers—a practice that is far less hazardous. But the lack of government regulations in Nicaragua and Honduras makes such promises dubious.

The lobster industry is practically the only means by which residents of the isolated Mosquito Coast can make a decent living. Divers earn upwards of $2 a pound for their efforts. A typical 12-day sojourn at sea can yield more than $300—a kingly sum for the area’s destitute populace.

For every dollar earned, though, the region’s residents pay a brutal price. Divers rely almost exclusively on perilously archaic scuba equipment. The oxygen lines are often clogged. There are generally no gauges to warn how much air remains in a tank or how deep a diver has descended. And the Miskitos work at an extremely dangerous pace, often making 15 dives a day for two weeks straight, whereas just two or three trips every 24 hours is considered safe.

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