The Dark Side of Lobster
Declining populations, falling profits, and a discarded workforce

April 1st, 2009
by Kate Zana Burton

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Straight off the boat, a young Miskito diver displays his treasure that come to be known as 'red gold.' The industry has very strict guidelines about the size of lobster that can be exported out of Honduras and if the body doesn't measure at least five and a half inches from neck to tail, it won't be accepted by the processing plant. Often the boat captains allow the men to take home any lobsters that don't make the grade.

Straight off the boat, a young Miskito diver displays his treasure that come to be known as 'red gold.' The industry has very strict guidelines about the size of lobster that can be exported out of Honduras and if the body doesn't measure at least five and a half inches from neck to tail, it won't be accepted by the processing plant. Often the boat captains allow the men to take home any lobsters that don't make the grade.

The lobster industry has taken a serious blow this past year. As demand from the United States has dropped, Honduran lobster prices have plummeted from 340 Lps. a pound to a meager 190 Lps. in the last six months alone. As the season finally comes to a close after eight months of trawling the banks off the north coast of La Mosquitia, Shawn Hyde, the managing director of Mariscos Hybur, one of Roatan’s three processing plants, has time to reflect on one of the worst seasons in the past two decades. “There certainly was a crisis last year with the demand dropping right off in the States. I’ve only done thirty per cent of what I would normally do in a season.”

For people living off lobster, falling prices are only part of the problem. Over the past decade the lobster population in Honduran waters has been steadily decreasing. Lobster boat owners have been struggling to even cover the costs of sending their boats out for the twelve day trips out to the lobster banks.

Duane McNab, a lobster dive boat owner from Oak Ridge decided to bring his boat in to dock even before the season ended on February 28. “I literally made $1,000 on the last trip after all the costs were covered. It’s not worth it for me, so I didn’t do any trips after October.” McNab’s boat has been sitting in dock for the past five months. Lobster fishing is Honduras is at a breakpoint. Neither boat owners, nor parking plants have been making money and the boat captains have been feeling growing pressure to bring in even more lobster to compensate for the fall in price.

The effects of this now vulnerable industry are not only limited to the Bay Islands. The lobster industry impact stretches right across the northern coast of Honduras and is especially important in La Mosquitia.

The Miskito lobster divers have taken the hardest hit, for they now make only 40 lempira a pound for the product they harvest, an almost a 50% drop.

Savallo is lowered into the water by his workmate, a doryman -- the canoe man who accompanies each diver on the lobster fishing banks. For patients who suffer bends, swimming therapy is encouraged to increase blood circulation and muscle use. On Roatan, a doctor can direct the therapy, but once he returns back to La Mosktia, Savallo will likely be without further medical care.

Savallo is lowered into the water by his workmate, a doryman -- the canoe man who accompanies each diver on the lobster fishing banks. For patients who suffer bends, swimming therapy is encouraged to increase blood circulation and muscle use. On Roatan, a doctor can direct the therapy, but once he returns back to La Mosktia, Savallo will likely be without further medical care.

In the 2008-2009 season, 67 Honduran lobster boats used Miskito divers to bring up their catch. Some boat owners prefer lobster diving to trapping, even though trapping is the safer alternative. According to Hyde, ninety percent of Roatan dive boats have switched to lobster traps, and Hyde says “it is more profitable in the long run to be trapping lobsters.” Outfitting the boats with traps is a significant investment.

Lobster diving in Honduras functions in the gray area on international fishing laws. The Honduran government and international organizations have been trying for years to phase out diving for lobster and offer employment alternatives to La Mosquitia divers.

The industry employs around 3,400 divers from the Honduran coast. Without the money brought in from diving, the families and communities have few alternatives for income. In La Mosquitia, unemployment is rife and for many of the residents of the isolated villages sparsely dotted along the coastal lagoons, living from the sea is just about all they know.

Commercial lobster diving is not the safe recreational diving Bay Islanders are used to seeing. Unlike recreational divers, who don’t typically dive more often than three times a day to depths of perhaps 90 feet, the Miskito divers routinely dive up to 14 times a day to depths of anywhere between 90 and a 140 feet. The lobsters found in the safety of the shallows have long disappeared.

The impact of these repetitive dives is devastating. The diver’s bodies become super saturated with nitrogen which turns into bubbles during their numerous ascents, causing decompression sickness, more commonly known as the bends. Left untreated, the bends can lead to injury, paralysis and, in severe cases, death.

According to AMBHLI (Association of Disabled Divers in La Mosquitia), since 1986, 360 men have lost their lives as a direct result of industrial lobster diving, and over 1600 have been left disabled or paralyzed. Unable to work, many lose their families and homes, and are left to fend for themselves, relying on sporadic volunteer donations from churches or neighbors.

Lobster divers step off the 'lancha' that has brought them to land from the mother boat. After twelve days at sea living in cramped bunks, these Miskito divers have returned without major injury. For every known case of decompression sickness, there are many other undocumented cases. Type I bends causes mainly pain that can be confused as muscular stress from lifting heavy tanks. Sometimes the divers don't want to admit to being injured as it could hinder their chances of being allowed to dive with the same boat again.

Lobster divers step off the 'lancha' that has brought them to land from the mother boat. After twelve days at sea living in cramped bunks, these Miskito divers have returned without major injury. For every known case of decompression sickness, there are many other undocumented cases. Type I bends causes mainly pain that can be confused as muscular stress from lifting heavy tanks. Sometimes the divers don't want to admit to being injured as it could hinder their chances of being allowed to dive with the same boat again.

A disabled ex lobster diver looks on from his bed. He has spent almost 20 years lying on his stomach and has difficulty clearing his lungs.

A disabled ex lobster diver looks on from his bed. He has spent almost 20 years lying on his stomach and has difficulty clearing his lungs.

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