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.

Continued on Next Page >>




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