Posted on June 16, 2011 - by

Demand for Spiny Lobster Pushes Divers to Death

Today’s guest blogger is Eric Douglas, Director of Education for the Divers Alert Network. He is an advocate for spiny lobster divers, who face decompression sickness, paralysis and death, as they are forced to dive to greater depths to meet economic demands. It’s a sobering reminder that we must always remember the safety and well-being of the faces behind our food as we work for sustainable food systems.

Spiny lobster might be sustainable, but the harvesting techniques aren’t.

Around the world, divers harvest the sea for spiny lobster, abalone and other shellfish, while they face paralysis or death without understanding the danger.

Over the past year, Eric Douglas, Director of Education and Dr. Matias Nochetto, Director of Operations and Outreach at Divers Alert Network (DAN) have traveled to Honduras, Mexico and northeast Brazil to learn about these divers and to investigate ways to help.

The Disease

Decompression sickness (DCS) commonly referred to as “the bends” is a condition caused by exposure to depth and pressure. When divers spend too much time at depth, bubbles form in the body tissues and bloodstream, restricting blood flow and causing joint pain. Or they can form in the central nervous system, causing weakness, numbness or paralysis.

Worst Case

Of the three populations of divers Douglas and Nochetto are working with, the Miskito Indians from Honduras are by far the most troubling. They make eight to 12 dives a day to more than 100 feet for 12 days in a row, while living in squalid conditions on board boats filled with 100 or more people and no sanitation. They work very hard while at depth, swimming quickly to find the lobsters or hammering the conch shells to remove the animal.

The divers are paid by the pound for their catch, encouraged to dive and ignore minor symptoms. They only raise concerns when they are too weak to keep diving or can no longer walk. When groups have attempted to teach the divers techniques to dive more safely, the divers refuse, saying they can’t make enough money to support their families if they dive within established safe diving tables.

There are more than 2000 Miskito Indians who are members of the Association of Handicapped Miskito Indian Lobster Divers, yet the directors do not believe they represent all the Miskito Indians who have dive-related disabilities.

“Harvesting is literally costing men their lives. In La Moskitia, there are an estimated 200,000 Miskito Indians. That means approximately one percent of the total population is suffering from some disability brought on by diving,” Douglas said. “That is approximately five percent of the working age male population. It is just astounding that we can maim and kill an entire population and no one notices.”

The Environment

Marine Protected Areas, such as the one near Isla Natividad in Baja California Sur, Mexico have helped shore up the depletion of fisheries and natural resources. However, each year the divers still must dive deeper to fulfill their catch, as shallower waters become depleted.

Harvesting lobster using compressed air in Northeast Brazil, in the Rio Grande do Norte region, is actually illegal, yet the divers collect more than 6,000 tons of lobster annually for sale to foreign markets. In spite of the legal embargoes on fishing for lobster, the environmental organizations lack the ability to adequately patrol the coastline to enforce the laws. Diving for lobster has the highest incidence of workplace injury of any occupation in the region.


“The world was shocked about the number of dolphins we were killing because of our hunger for tuna, but so far nothing has been said about the number of divers we kill because of our hunger for sea produce,” Nochetto said. “Whether it’s lobster from the Caribbean, Salmon from Chile, Sea Cucumber from Zanzibar, Conch or Abalone from Mexico, the problem is quite always the same. Human ambitions for making a naturally limited product ubiquitous and inexpensive have a woefully unacceptable cost, both from an ecological point of view as well as from a public health perspective. The incidence of death and permanent disabilities as a result of an occupational hazard among commercial non-professional harvesting divers is pandemic,” he concluded.

DAN is reviewing the diving techniques and trying to find simple ways to increase the diver’s safety margins, using decompression stops or other techniques to help their bodies reduce their decompression stress. They are also working to support the hyperbaric chambers that treat these divers with training and educational programs to make sure the divers receive the best care. Lastly, the organization is working to offer training in oxygen first aid to help the divers care for themselves and each other.

But until these divers can make a living diving more safely, being paid adequately for their catch, men will continue to be paralyzed or die in search of lobster.


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    June 17, 2012


    Rosalia Ostrum said:

    Excellent post. I agree with author totally, especially last words. Keep writing articles like this one.