We recently profiled the work of Stephen Box, a Smithsonian scientist who is working with Miskito fishermen to develop a sustainable, safer lobster fishery off Central America’s Caribbean coast. Box told us that, over the past four decades, Miskito men have been putting their lives at risk by scuba diving to pick up lobster from the seafloor.
Box said there have been around 120 dive accidents a year, with around 20 of those incidents being fatal, largely due to the bends (decompression sickness).
In response to growing pressure from the divers’ families and their advocates, as well as ongoing work by Box and others to develop better alternatives, Central American governments recently agreed to phase out the dangerous practice. But then, Nicaragua voted to extend diving for lobster for another three years.
As Miguel Jorge wrote in Ocean Views, there is concern Honduras may do the same.
The difficult, dangerous lives of Miskito lobster divers are brought into sharp focus by the 2012 documentary film My Village, My Lobster. In the hour-long feature, Brooklyn-based director Joshua Wolff profiles a rag tag crew of Miskito divers and lobster fishers from Nicaragua, where roughly 50,000 people depend on the millions of dollars raised by the industry (check out the film on iTunes).
The film, which was financed at least in part with a successful Kickstarter campaign, pointed out that more than 90% of the lobster caught in Nicaragua is exported to the U.S.–driving home the point that American consumers should pay more attention to where their food comes from, and learn about what sacrifices are made to put food on their plates.
At the start of the film, the audience is introduced to Miskito fishermen who still practice artisanal methods, hauling lobster from the shallow, warm waters around the Miskito Keys into small boats. But the catch is declining thanks to the harvest.
“When the price of lobster is down we have to catch twice as much, which leads to exploitation of the resource,” one of the fishers said. “In a few years there won’t be any lobster.”
The bulk of the film examines the hard lives of Miskito divers who work on commercial boats, going out for 12-day stretches into deeper waters. The boats have been heading out farther and farther, meaning divers have to plunge deeper and deeper to pick up the clawless spiny lobsters from the bottom.
Each diver is supported by a guy in a canoe, who helps him change out his tanks. They work all day, into the dark, with equipment that is often old and in need of repair. When the diver’s air supply invariably gets cut off, he must scramble toward the surface. That rapid ascent often causes the bends. If it isn’t fatal outright, the diver will likely have to endure days of pain in a hyperbaric chamber, followed by a long recovery (though many of the effects are permanent, including neurological damage).
One diver, Jesus, has already had several serious accidents, but he continues to dive to support his family. “It’s like I’m gambling with my life to earn some money,” he said.
Jesus started diving at age 15. The first time he got the bends his legs were paralyzed for a while. The second time he hurt his head. The third time, he damaged part of his brain.
My Village, My Lobster quoted a World Bank study that found nearly 100% of the region’s commercial divers have suffered some form of neurological damage. They cited a 30% chance of serious injury in a year, making it one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
The physician who treats many of the divers in a creepy-looking hyperbaric chamber, Ernesto Taylor, said, “The government should substitute something less abusive for commercial diving. We have to get rid of this abusive work, but somehow also provide an alternative.” (This could perhaps be the theme of the film.)
The film did mention that some people are turning to lobster traps, which could be pulled up to the surface. Stephen Box has been working on a similar idea, lobster casitas (houses) that can be placed in shallow water, to allow easy collection via skin diving.
The film’s narration added, “International organizations have been working to catalyze change in the region, but nearly all efforts have met with resistance.” Clearly, there is still resistance today in Nicaragua, given the recent legal extension to the practice.
My Village, My Lobster isn’t the easiest film to watch, since it shares some of the daily struggles of former divers who became disabled. One seems largely floor ridden (perhaps he can’t afford a mattress), and he showed a gruesome sore on his side that he said requires a skin graft. That seems unlikely to happen, given the fact that many of the disabled men said they didn’t have insurance and hadn’t received any support from their employers (one guy pointed out that the boat captains won’t even leave the fishery to take the injured to port, they send them off in a skiff). The disabled man’s wife had left him.
“I’ve been fighting for my life…for nine years,” the man said.
Some of the former divers have resorted to begging for fish from those still working. Another guy, who pilots one of the support canoes, returned from a trip to find out that his wife had left him with their child (and their unborn child). His parents alluded to his alleged drug problems as a possible reason.
Much of the tension in the film comes from the workers trying to negotiate better wages with the ship owners, although they seemed to be fighting a loosing battle, thanks to depressed lobster prices (a result of recession in the U.S.).
Clearly, a long-term solution must provide new opportunities, or the Miskitos will descend further into poverty. Stephen Box hopes he has part of that solution, with casitas and sustainable fishery management that is locally driven.
So the next time you go to a seafood restaurant, you might give a thought to the guy who plucked that succulent crustacean from the sea. Hopefully, he can still walk and didn’t succumb to the bends.
(Check out the film’s official You Tube channel for more clips.)
P.S. I feel bad for the sea turtles in the film.
Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting, Build Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.