Because the demand for these lobsters has increased enormously over the last few decades and there is little other work in their sparsely populated area, the young men of Honduras’ Mosquito coast, dive too often and too deeply, using inadequate equipment, in search of “red gold”.
The lobster industry is profitable for some and accounts for nearly 10% of Honduran foreign trade or over $50 million for the Honduran and Nicaraguan economies. The divers, however, are lucky if they get $2 a pound diving 10 to 15 times a day over a 12 day journey at sea.
Because of the structure of the industry, dive masters are in control of the divers who often must rely on oxygen lines that get clogged, archaic diving equipment without gauges to tell when the air in the tank is getting low or the depth to which they are diving. And, when these dangerous conditions result in divers succumbing to decompression sickness or the “bends”, they are left without economic support, unable to work or provide for their families.
Because scuba diving for lobsters has become intensively industrialized safety procedures are often ignored. Inadequate management of this natural resource means that divers must go ever deeper to find the spiny crustaceans. The divers face the additional risks of greater pressure at these depths and, without adequate training, they may resurface too quickly, not making the necessary decompression stops along the way up. When a diver moves too quickly from a high to a low pressure area, gases in the bloodstream can create bubbles that block small blood vessels, cut off oxygen to body parts including the brain, resulting in severe joint pain, paralysis, damaged nerves, disability and even death.
A World Bank report in 1999 said that “Nearly 100% of the Miskito divers showed neurological damage.” Another study found that approximately 4200 divers are living with their diving injuries – this is nearly half of all the Miskito divers under 35 (the divers are all young). They also reported that roughly 50 divers die from decompression sickness each year. This gives Honduras the dubious honor of having more deaths and disablement from decompression sickness than any other country.
Diving training, more hyperbaric chambers, hyperbaric technician training, in the locations where divers may come ashore exhibiting decompression sickness symptoms would vastly reduce these incidences of disability and death. However, so far local and national governments have not found the money nor the political will to help the 40,000 Miskito Indians (or 6300 families) dependent on lobster diving.
As long as the demand is there, men will risk life and limb diving into the cold, deep waters along the Honduran coastline. However, what will happen when the once plentiful lobsters are over fished to the point that divers no longer find them at the depths to which they are diving today? How much deeper can they go?