PUERTO CABEZAS – A crowd of mostly women and children hunker beneath umbrellas on the water-slick dock during a drizzly morning in this depressed northern Caribbean port town, waiting for the lobster boats to emerge from the gray horizon. Like an injured athlete watching from the sidelines, Milton Periera sits in the rain in a wooden wheelchair fitted with hand pedals. He watches as the boats trickle into port, bringing in the first lobster harvest since Hurricane Felix plowed through this poverty-stricken Caribbean port town last September.
Periera was once among the lobster divers returning from sea. Known as a “buzo,” or lobster diver, he forged the perilous depths of the Caribbean, diving as deep as 140 feet, up to 15 times a day. During fishing season, he plucked up to $200 of lobster from the seabed, earning an extravagant income in one of the poorest parts of the world.
But one day after diving, he felt a wrenching in his chest as decompression sickness, or bends, set in. Then he lost feeling in his legs. “The doctor says there’s no cure,” said the 26-year-old paraplegic Miskito man.
Every year, as many as 5,000 Nicaraguan men – the vast majority indigenous Miskitos – risk their lives in the largely unregulated commercial lobster industry, taking on the increasingly hazardous job with little or no training. Amid widespread overexploitation, they’re having to head farther out to sea and dive deeper to bring in the harvest.
According to the local divers’ union, there are as many as 800 debilitated or paralyzed divers living in Nicaragua, and the death toll of those who suffered health complications related to decompression sickness has reached 200 since 1990.
As Nicaragua’s economically devastated North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) tries to recover from the disastrous effects of last year’s category 5 hurricane, more divers are expected to head out to sea this year to earn some desperately needed cash, despite the government’s push to phase out lobster diving within the next two and a half years.
“The only income that comes into this town is through the buzos, so every year more of them go out despite the risks, which they’re aware of,” said Dr. Francisco Selvas, who treats divers with the bends at the Nuevo Amanacer hospital in Puerto Cabezas. Selvas said this year alone he’s already treated 40 buzos for the bends.
The Nicaraguan Fisheries Institute (Inpesca) has been trying to persuade lobster divers to switch to the fishing industry, but the institute’s director, Steadman Fagoth, complains that the National Assembly has been dragging its feet in approving financing to help fishermen recover from the devastating effects of Felix.
The hurricane destroyed many fishermen’s boats and delivered a blow to the fish-export industry, which dropped 11 percent to $90 million last year, according to the Central Bank.
“We’re going to try to find them different means to get ahead in life,” Fagoth said of the buzos, adding that the country’s maritime territory – which was expanded last year in the settlement of a territorial dispute with Honduras – houses a virtual gold mine of 6,000 metric tons and 57 species of exportable fish.
But lobster industry insiders say trying to wipe away the region’s main source of income would be economic suicide.
“Impossible,” said Fabio Robelo, a manager of the seafood exporter Central American Fisheries, which has lobster operations throughout Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. “How can you tell so many people not to lobster dive without offering them something else?”
Many of the 40,000 residents of Puerto Cabezas, where the labor force grew exponentially during the 1980s when the Sandinistas used the port as a strategic military hub, are still preoccupied with scratching out a living in the wake of the disaster.
“If they close the lobster harvest, we’ll all die of hunger,” said Jenny Loandy, a Puerto Cabezas resident and activist who seeks better working conditions for buzos.
Biologist Eric van den Berghe first visited CornIsland 20 years ago. “I could snorkel off the beach and find enough lobster for dinner within a half hour,” he said of the Caribbean island. A decade later, lobster companies were going 20 miles out to sea and diving 80 feet deep to catch lobster. Now they’re going out as far as 30 miles and diving 100 feet, he said.
“The lobsters are heavily overexploited between the divers and the traps that are laid out for them. The average size of lobster being caught is decreasing and they’re having to expend more effort going farther and farther,” the Ave Maria College professor said.
Van den Berghe said the rising death and casualty toll in Nicaragua’s lobster industry “are not surprising” considering the risks divers take.
“All the dive tables say they should be dead at the end of the first day. The surprise isn’t (the number of) dead or paralyzed, but that anybody is surviving,” he said.
The biologist said divers are aware of the risks related to decompression sickness, but have no other options.
“Divers know about it. They say if they don’t dive six or eight tanks a day, they don’t get enough to pay for the fuel, and if they don’t get enough lobster, the cooperatives won’t give them the tanks,” he said, “They’re not ignorant; they basically feel they have no choice.”
Robelo, who oversees one of the biggest lobster operations on the CornIslands, says a lack of enforcement plagues the lobster industry. Not only is the April to June lobster ban largely ignored by small diver operations, diminishing the supply of lobster and forcing divers to go deeper, but restrictions on hunting immature lobster populations are largely disregarded.
Fagoth said Inpesca has been shelling out fines as part of a crackdown on Nicaragua’s massive black market for fish and lobster. An estimated $14 million worth of fish and lobster are exploited illegally a year, he said.
Overexploitation was already a problem before Hurricane Felix hit the region; three months before the storm, Fagoth cancelled some lobster and shrimp permits due to scarcity.
That shortage was worsened by the hurricane, which destroyed parts of the seabed. Now, however, the economic depression following the hurricane is expected to push more costeños out to sea to seek out a livelihood in the lobster industry, putting an even greater strain on this depleted resource.
Changing the Model
Fagoth says Nicaragua’s Caribbean fish and lobster industry has for years concentrated the wealth in the hands of a few industry leaders who exploit a plentiful labor pool.
That is why financing and increased access to export licenses for small-scale fishermen are a must, he says.
But to date, the National Assembly has not yet approved the $8 million in proposed financing from the World Bank and Venezuela that would help small-scale fishers get back on their feet. And larger fishing companies don’t have the capacity this year to finance small fishermen as in the past, he said.
Back on the pier in Puerto Cabezas, Periera’s wife holds an umbrella over his head as the rain picks up.
Between pauses and stutters, he explains that he has heard therapies exist to treat his condition, though none of those services are offered in Puerto Cabezas.
Like the growing number of buzos who suffer the bends, an illness suffered by those who don’t properly adapt to a pressure decrease that occurs by rapidly ascending from a dive, Periera didn’t get immediate treatment when his decompression sickness set in.
Though Nuevo Amanacer’s 8-year-old decompression chamber is the only one in the country the problem is bigger than a lack of technological capacity, Selvas said.
Lobster companies, most of which are Honduran-owned here, are reluctant to take on extra costs of evacuating ill divers to shore to get immediate treatment.
“They’re not going to take on a loss to help a buzo,” Selvas said.