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Miskito divers risk injury and death to feed seafood markets

Many indigenous communities around the world harvest the sea floor for marine life such as spiny lobster, conch, abalone, sea cucumber, and red algae to feed international markets. While some communities have scuba equipment or air-supplied hookah rigs, others free-dive, putting their lives at risk.

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Harvesting Miskito Indians dive well beyond established safe limits to collect lobster or fill collection bags with conch, sea snails, or sea cucumbers. In the process of trying to earn money to support their families, many become paralyzed or simply perish.

By Fabio Esteban Amador

The Miskito Indians from Honduras’  La Moskitia region have little or no training and minimal equipment to help them pluck seafood from the ocean floor. They lack depth and pressure gauges or timers, and have little access to medical care when they encounter problems associated with their dangerous diving.

Between 1,500 and 2,000 Miskito Indians dive for lobsters eight months out of the year, catching them by hand. The other four months of the year, smaller numbers of divers harvest conchs using the same aggressive diving techniques. The divers descend 8 to 12 times a day on scuba gear to more than 100 feet, working until their air tanks are nearly empty before they ascend rapidly to the surface, where they change tanks and repeat the process.

Paid by the Pound

These divers are paid by the pound for their catch, which encourages them to dive while ignoring minor symptoms–and to raise concerns only when they feel significant pain, are too weak to keep on diving, or can no longer walk.

Eric Douglas, a photographer and director of education for Divers Alert Network (DAN), has documented sea-harvesting in many parts of the world. He recently documented a group of Miskito Indians in La Ceiba, Honduras, and their perilous routine.

“As seasons change, these harvesters alter their techniques as they comb the bottom hunting for their catch. They pick up shelled animals or lobster in game nets, while placing more fragile sea cucumbers in buckets to be cleaned on the surface. Often these divers face injury, paralysis, or death without truly understanding the forces at work on their bodies,” Douglas said.

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In many families in La Moskitia, Honduras, decompression

sickness–and the paralysis that comes from it–strikes more than one member.

These two brothers became injured on separate dives, more than a year apart. They

said they knew of families with three or four brothers who all had dive-related

paralysis. They now live with their mother in a remote village in a home built

on stilts. The wheelchair-bound brother has to scoot up the steps to get

inside. 

Decompression Sickness

Harvesting the sea using compressed air has its own challenges. Decompression sickness (DCS), commonly referred to as “the bends,” is a condition caused by exposure to excessive depths and pressures, remaining at depth too long, or ascending too rapidly.

As pressures increase with depth, the body absorbs more nitrogen from inhaled air. On ascent, this dissolved nitrogen can form bubbles in blood and tissues, much as dissolved carbon dioxide forms bubbles in a soft drink when you suddenly reduce pressure by opening a can or bottle.

With sufficient time for decompression, the lungs remove a diver’s excess nitrogen before bubbles can form. When a diver spends too much time at depth, however, this nitrogen can’t be off-gassed during ascent without forming bubbles, unless the diver spends significant times at decreasing depths on what is known as “decompression stops” before returning to the surface. When they form, nitrogen bubbles can restrict blood flow, cause joint pain, or appear in peripheral and central nervous system tissues, causing weakness, numbness, or paralysis.

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Dr. Elmer Mejia, the

medical director of the Benediciones Hyperbaric Clinic in La Ceiba, Honduras,

examines a paralyzed diver at his home in Cocotal, a remote village in La

Moskitia, Honduras. The diver spends his days in a hammock beneath a mango tree

while his children play around him.

Handicapped Divers 

The Association of Handicapped Miskito Indian Lobster Divers has more than 2,000 members. The association does not believe it represents all the Miskito Indians who struggle with some form of paralysis brought on by diving. Those who live in remote villages (some of which lack electricity and running water) rarely make it into the capital of La Moskitia, Puerto Lempira, for treatment. The association has documented more than 400 divers who survived their injuries to return to their villages, but later died at home.

Douglas is close to these divers and knows their stories too well. “Billie was on the eighth day of a lobster trip. He made a dive to free a tangled boat anchor, descending quickly to the bottom, struggling with the anchor and then rapidly bolting to the surface where his symptoms appeared immediately.

“He arrived at the chamber four days later–after being taken to a small island and flown to La Ceiba–paralyzed from the mid-chest down. He had lost bowel and bladder control. After receiving several treatments in a hyperbaric chamber and regaining some feeling (but neither the use of his legs nor the ability to urinate on his own), Billie’s family decided to take him back to La Moskitia to be treated by a bush doctor,” Douglas recalls.

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Dr. Mejia explains to “Billie” how his treatment will

progress. Billie arrived at the hyperbaric chamber in La Ceiba, Honduras, paralyzed from

the middle of his chest down, with no sensation in the paralyzed parts of his body and unable to urinate on his

own. It took him four days to reach the chamber from the remote dive site where

his lobster boat was working, near Swan Island in the western Caribbean. 

Giving Divers a Fighting Chance

DAN researches and promotes ways to make diving safer and the most effective treatments for diving accidents. Douglas and Matias Nochetto, DAN’s medical coordinator for Latin America, are spearheading the Harvesting Diver Project to raise awareness about the plight of the Moskito divers and others like them.

“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 suffers from some disability brought on by diving,” Douglas said.

“It is just astounding that we can maim and kill an entire population and no one notices.”

“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.

“We want to tell the human perspective on the problem. I want to show people, divers and non-divers, the human faces of the men who harvest the sea, but sacrifice their health and their lives to do it,” says Douglas.

DAN has reviewed the Indians’ diving techniques and is promoting simple ways to increase their safety, such as decompression stops during dive ascents and other risk reduction techniques. The organization offers training in oxygen first aid to help the divers care for themselves and each other. And they are helping support use of and access to hyperbaric chambers by Moskiti divers with training and educational programs.

To learn more about DAN’s work with Moskito divers, see the upcoming story in the fourth-quarter edition of Alert Diver magazine and on the organization’s website in November.

Photos by Eric Douglas, copyright Eric Douglas and Divers Alert Network

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Fabio Esteban Amador is the program officer for the NGS/Waitt Grants Program at National Geographic and an associate research professor of anthropology at George Washington University. He is an archaeologist specializing in Mesoamerican cultures and Pre-Columbian and historic earthen architectural conservation. Amador studied archaeology at Rutgers University and advance degrees at the State University of New York in Buffalo. He has worked in prehistoric sites in North, Central and South America and is presently conducting research in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Before joining National Geographic, he was a professor of archaeology  and a researcher for the Council for Scientific Investigation at the National University of El Salvador.

Read Fabio Esteban Amador’s blog posts

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Comments

  1. Bill Pace
    Washington state
    January 5, 7:35 pm

    I ended up here because I read about the paralyzed miskitu divers in a New Yorker piece. That article left the mistaken impression that the problem was related to breath hold diving as opposed to scuba. Breath hold divers can’t get into trouble with the bends because they are bringing the air, uncompressed, down with them. There are other risks, of course, like shallow water blackout. If you are looking for a place to place blame it would be the introduction of scuba technology in the absence of adequate education and safety protocols.

  2. siti internet
    March 20, 2013, 5:10 am

    I don’t even know how I finished up here, however I assumed this put up used to be good. I don’t realize who you are but certainly you are going to a well-known blogger for those who are not already. Cheers!

  3. Carlos E. Alvarez
    Orlando, Florida
    January 3, 2012, 11:24 am

    Why is it that you want to portray to the world that they are responsible for the mosquito indians’ decision to dive to make a living? Shouldn’t it be the responsibility of the company or individual that is buying the products from the divers to supply proper equipment and/or de-compression facilities to the divers as they hire them? While I simpathize with the mesquito indians’ terrible situation, I realize that someone is hiring them near by that should take responsibility to provide them equipment and facilities to de-compress. That individual or entity is benefiting directly from the diver’s work and provably paying them a missery of a salary. It is good that the world should know about the sacrifices the indians make when they risk their lives diving for seafood, but the direct responsibility rest on the individual or entity that hires the divers, not the world or the consumers. Sure, raising consumer awareness to send a message that someone might have died so you can eat that lobster is a good way to bring injustice to the attention of the world, but the injustice starts right where they are hired. The questions that should be asked is what is the Government of Honduras doing to curve the problem of labor abuse? How can the government make those that hire the divers’ responsible for the damages they suffer while diving? The solution to the problem can be found where the problem started, the bottom of the ladder instead of the top of the ladder; the market. Please don’t take my comments as inhumane, on the contrary, I feel there should be something done to help these divers quickly so they can be physically restored and go back to work to support their families while some form of compensation should be provided to those that cannot recuperate totally. The question is who will do that? The one’s who hired them at the local villages, the ones who buy the lobsters from them at the local market? The exporter, individual or company?