Nicaraguans Risk Death Diving for Vanishing Lobsters

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"Everything is twisted into a perfect recipe for decompression disease of every type," said Izdepski. "We see things here that aren't seen anywhere else in the world, on a daily basis."

What keeps these men diving? Quite simply, the money. A buseo can pull in up to $1,000 U.S. on a fifteen-day trip in a country where the per capita income is less than $500 per year.

"To get 30 pounds of lobster you got to reach, 80, 90 100, 120, 130 feet," said Safiro, a young diver. "[It is] very hard. Very hard. Because you need it and you have to go do it. That's the only work we got. No solution. No help."

The hub of the industry is Puerto Cabezas, just 60 miles south of the Honduras border on the eastern coast.

Divers' Only Hope

In Puerto Cabezas, just behind the municipal hospital, sits the one hope for injured divers: a hyperbaric chamber that can reverse the effects of decompression sickness.

"This chamber is always busy. There is no day off," said Dr. Humberto Olayo, who supervises the treatment.

Compressed air is fed into the chamber. As the pressure inside the chamber changes, the nitrogen bubbles begin to dissolve. If all goes as planned, the diver will regain control of his legs. In the last six years Olayo estimates he has treated more than 500 divers—many survive, dozens do not.

Industry Turns a Blind Eye

But the lobster industry paints a different picture. Less than a mile from the hyperbaric chamber is Atlanor, one of the largest lobster plants in the country.

"We have no serious problem of diver sickness," said William Chow, vice general of Atlanor. "It looks to me basically, like there are many people interested in creating a sense of alarm."

"We don't have any deaths or paralyzations," said Chow. "There are no dead divers. In the past year, I haven't heard of any." Chow also said that his men receive a three-day course on scuba diving.

"In the United States, to become a commercial diver, it takes 90 days to go to school and then 3 years apprenticeship," said Izdepski.

Despite Izdepski's frustration, he is the first to point out that no one man, no one company, is solely responsible for this tragedy.

"Everybody is in a bad situation here," said Izdepski. "Nobody is happy with decompression sickness. The divers have to work because there is no other work. The owners want production and the captains are stuck in the middle. So it is a very, very sensitive situation."

"If the diving was completely terminated here, 90 percent of the income would cease and you would have hunger all over the coast," he added.

So for the time being, Izdepski continues to educate these men. And Dr. Olayo spends his days at the chamber, doing his best to give these divers their lives back.

"I think it's the worst thing I've seen on the Mosquito Coast isn't the incredible ulcers or the men crawling on the floors—it's actually the effects on the families, the effects on their children," said Izdepski. "When you take a father away from a family like this, and turn him into a dependent, all of his dignity is gone, all of his ability to play with his kids, to teach his kids. And that's the worst that I've seen."

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