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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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