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NICARAGUA: Lobster Divers in Deep Trouble

José Adán Silva

PUERTO CABEZAS, Nicaragua, Jan 3 2011 (IPS) - Edgard Walters, who belongs to the Association of Disabled and Active Divers of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, has been in a wheelchair since 2003, when he made his last dive for lobster in the waters of the Caribbean.

Lobster fishermen in Puerto Cabezas.  Credit: Germán Miranda/IPS

Lobster fishermen in Puerto Cabezas. Credit: Germán Miranda/IPS

It was not until he was paralysed from the waist down that the 32-year-old Miskito Indian found out that divers shouldn’t make more than four dives a day, or go deeper than 18 metres. Only then did he learn that he should have been using equipment like a wet suit, pressure and depth gauges, and a watch, and that he had to make decompression stops on his way up.

According to the instructions he received from the dive master on the fishing boat where he worked, he could do more than 10 dives a day, up to a depth of 100 arm strokes, equivalent to 100 metres in the method of measurement used by the Miskito divers off the Caribbean coast in northeast Nicaragua.

“You couldn’t see the bottom very well down there, it was really cold, and the water pressure made it hard for me to move,” Walters said.

On his last dive, “I could hardly breathe, and felt a lot of pressure in my chest; my air tank was running out. I made it up to the boat somehow and passed out as soon as I took a breath. When I woke up, I was in the hospital, and I couldn’t move my legs anymore.”

The paraplegic former fisherman lives in the neighbourhood of El Muelle in Puerto Cabezas, the capital of Nicaragua’s North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), where diving for Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) has been the livelihood of thousands of Miskito families since the early 1990s.

Walters was treated for eight months at the Nuevo Amanecer hospital, which has the only decompression chamber in the region. In the compartment, also known as a hyperbolic oxygen therapy chamber, atmospheric pressure can be gradually raised or lowered, to allow scuba divers to readjust to normal atmospheric pressure by reducing the size of nitrogen bubbles formed in the blood and tissues and transporting blood throughout the body.

Some 400 Miskito divers in the region have been left disabled like Walters, and without economic support from the companies they were diving for.

The Miskito are an Amerindian community along the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua and southern Honduras. Many Miskito are of mixed-race heritage, as a result of intermarriage between escaped African slaves and indigenous people.

In 2005, a government study estimated that more than 1,250 Miskito Indians under 35 (all of the divers are young) had suffered debilitating effects of decompression illness, or “the bends”, which is caused when a diver surfaces too quickly after diving at a depth, without making decompression stops on the way up.

Because the diver is moving too quickly from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure, excess gases in the bloodstream form bubbles that are stored in the body’s tissues and liquids, Dr. Chuz Herranz, with Solidariedade Galega, a Spanish NGO that provides assistance to divers in Puerto Cabezas, told IPS.

Herranz said the problems suffered by the Miskito divers are due to a lack of prevention measures, adequate equipment, training and immediate medical attention, which he said the lobster fishing companies should provide.

According to unofficial figures, 350 people have died since 2000, when the extent of the problem of decompression illness, which can cause paralysis or death, began to come to light in the remote RAAN region.

Accidents are frequent because the Miskito divers are forced by their employers to dive deeper and deeper to find the dwindling number of lobsters, which are captured without regard to size limits, said Alfredo Alvarado, president of the Federación de los Trabajadores del Mar de la Costa Atlántica, the divers union.

The divers are paid one dollar per pound of lobster, he said.

Hurricanes Mitch (1998), Beta (2005), Felix (2007) and Ida (2009), as well as less powerful tropical storms, have also hurt the lobster habitat and migrations, Alvarado explained.

Authorities in the RAAN region estimate that every year, some 10 divers die and 250 are treated for decompression illness.

Mario Mora, president of the Asociación Pesquera del Atlántico Norte, which represents the lobster companies that operate in the area, denied that the employers abandon their disabled divers.

As part of an agreement with the ministries of health and labour and the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute, the disabled divers receive a monthly stipend of 1,500 córdobas (around 67 dollars), and their medical expenses are paid for life, he said.

Mora did acknowledge that the diving gear used is not the best. But he said that some of the companies are refraining from investing in new equipment because they are worried about the impact of a new law about to go into effect.

The law on protection and safety for divers, which was approved in February 2007 and will fully go into effect on Feb. 7, 2011, will ban free diving and scuba diving for lobster, allowing only fishing by traps and nets.

The law, which also requires that lobster companies upgrade their equipment, establishes fines and stipulates confiscations and ultimately closure for companies that violate its provisions.

The companies have been pressuring the regional authorities to convince Congress to postpone the implementation of the law, arguing that it will drive businesses into bankruptcy and leave thousands of families without an income.

The fishing industry in the RAAN region is not prepared to absorb the impact of the law, Reynaldo Francis Watson, chairman of the regional legislature’s committee on the environment and natural resources, told IPS.

Some 6,300 families, or 40,000 people, depend on diving for a living, and the RAAN region, which has a poverty rate of 85 percent, does not have the means to help them find alternative sources of income if they can no longer dive for lobster, he said.

The RAAN regional legislature also proposed modifying the closed season on lobster, established by the national authorities to protect the lobster population.

According to official figures, diving in RAAN generates 6,306 direct jobs, including 2,198 divers, 848 ‘cayuqueros’ who row the canoes taken out on the mother boats, 1,074 lobster boat crew members, 364 lobster warehouse workers, and 1,822 women dedicated to the informal buying and selling of lobster.

Lobster exports brought the country 24.6 million dollars in revenue in 2007.

But even if diving for lobster is banned, local residents will continue to dive, Mora said. And, he added, foreign boats will continue to defy the rules, by fishing in closed season for example.

The navy estimates that Nicaragua — one of the poorest countries in Latin America — loses some 10 million dollars a year to foreign boats fishing illegally in the country’s waters.

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