Nicaraguans Risk Death Diving for Vanishing Lobsters

Max Block and Shana Vickers
National Geographic Today
October 1, 2002
For centuries the Mosquito Indians of northeastern Nicaragua have relied
on the sea to survive. Every morning, the men slip below the surface of
the water and scour the reef in search of spiny lobsters. Now, their job
has turned deadly.

For years, the life of a lobsterman in Nicaragua was a good one. Most lobsters were trapped close to shore and injuries were few. But with no regulations in place, overfishing became rampant and the reefs were wiped clean. Now the lobster search has shifted to deeper water, and lobster boat captains push inexperienced, ill-equipped divers to probe greater depths and risk their lives for bigger catches. The results are gruesome.

The $40 million-dollar-a-year lobster industry in Nicaragua is second only to coffee and approximately 90 percent of the catch is exported to U.S. and Canadian restaurants and supermarkets. To meet the huge demand men dive as deep as 130 feet, searching the ocean floor until they've sucked the last breath of air from their tanks. Then often, in a panicked dash, they shoot to the surface. Decompression sickness, or "the bends," results almost immediately as nitrogen bubbles form and block blood flow in vessels and tissues.

Symptoms range from severe joint pains, vomiting, itching, numbness, abnormal brain function, paralysis and even death. In many cases, the lobster divers are a hundred miles out to sea and there's no way to reach shore quickly and obtain treatment in a decompression, or hyperbaric, chamber. At worst, they die. If they are lucky, they will make it back to shore alive, but will never walk again.

"I feel that this epidemic of decompression sickness is one of the great issues of our time and I've been continually amazed that we can document it and point it out again and again, and yet the powers that be pay no heed to it," said Bob Izdepski, founder and president of the Sub Ocean Safety group, an emergency relief group based in Lacombe, Louisiana.

2,500 Divers, More Than 800 Dead or Injured

In Sandy Bay, a collection of about 12 villages on the northeastern coast of Nicaragua, there are roughly 2,500 divers. Izdepski estimates that in the last five years, a third of them—more than 800 men—have either died or suffered serious injuries from decompression sickness. Men in wheelchairs and walkers push themselves up and down the dusty streets of virtually every village along the shore.

The only functioning hyberbaric chamber in Nicaragua has recently broken. According to Izdepski, more than forty divers injured in the last three months have gone untreated. Several have died.

Commercial diving is inherently risky. Four dives within two days will push the limits of most professional divers. Yet Mosquito lobstermen dive fifteen times a day for up to twelve consecutive days, and these men rarely receive formal dive training and are not warned of dangers.

No Training, Battered Gear

The scuba gear is frequently borrowed and battered. Their tanks are rusted and their regulators are often faulty. There are no gauges to indicate depth or how much air is left in the tank. The signal to surface comes when they can no longer pull air into their lungs—and then it's frantic ascent to the surface. A controlled ascent—one of the most basic tenets of safe diving—is almost unheard of in this part of the world.

"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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