Dying for Lobster

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.

These conditions make divers susceptible to decompression sickness–a predicament more commonly known as the bends. When a person descends below the water’s surface, the increased pressure forces more nitrogen than usual from the respiratory system into the tissues. If the diver resurfaces too quickly from anywhere below 30 feet, the nitrogen is released in the form of gas bubbles that can block small blood vessels, cutting off oxygen to the brain and other body parts. The end result can be severe pain in the joints, nerve damage, paralysis, even death.

According to a 1999 World Bank report, “Close to 100 percent of [Miskito] divers show symptoms of neurological damage.” A study sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank, based in Washington, D.C., found that there are roughly 4,200 divers living with injuries–nearly half the entire Miskito diving population. It’s estimated that at least 50 divers die from the bends each year.

The environmental toll has been no less calamitous, according to The Progressive (Sept. 2004). As recently as the early ’80s, lobsters were so abundant that fishermen could wade into the shallows of the Caribbean and literally pluck them from the sea. In attempting to satiate the demands of American and Canadian consumers, though, overfishing has become rampant. In the past three years, stocks have dropped by up to 40 percent and divers have had to descend to deeper and more dangerous depths (typically 120 feet or more) to make up the difference.

“If they continue like this, in five years there won’t be any more lobster in Nicaragua,” says Miguel Moranco, head of the Nicaraguan fisheries department. In order to try to stem the depletion of stocks, Nicaragua has instituted an annual three-month moratorium on lobster fishing, running from May to July. This year the closed season will be expanded another month.

The human and ecological destruction has motivated Bob Izdepski to try to improve conditions on the Mosquito Coast. His main strategy involves setting up decompression chambers to relieve the bends. These 12-foot-long metal capsules simulate underwater pressure and can, if they are used right after a dive, mitigate bodily damage. Since Izdepski installed the first tank in Puerto Cabezas in 1995, hundreds of divers have been successfully treated. The lifesaving devices are prohibitively expensive and require constant maintenance, however. And even if there were many more, the chamber is most effective when bent divers are treated within minutes of surfacing, and many Miskitos routinely spend more than a week at sea.

So, in spite of Izdepski’s efforts, Miskitos continue to be crippled and killed almost every day in order to meet the demand for red gold. “You see, there’s no other way for them to make money down here,” he says. “No agriculture, no industry. These guys aren’t going to sign on at the 7-Eleven, drive a truck. Lobster diving is it.”

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