Statistically, fishing is one of the world’s most dangerous professions and it is hard to imagine what could be worse than scuba diving for lobster along the remote and impoverished Miskito Coast of Honduras and Nicaragua (see Building a Sustainable Lobster Fishery Off Honduras).
The dangers of this profession have been graphically documented by NBC News and the New York Times. According to Smithsonian marine biologist Stephen Box, who has been working with the Miskito community, there are about 3,500 people who depend on the lobster fishery for their livelihoods, of which it is estimated that 1,300 are divers. Box, a National Geographic Ocean Fund Grantee, estimates that scuba diving for lobster results in about 120 cases of decompression sickness per year, of which around 20 are fatal.
In 2009, as part of a Central American wide agreement, governments acknowledged the human and environmental damage resulting from this fishery and committed to ban scuba diving for lobster by 2011. That was later extended to July 1, 2013 to allow Honduras and Nicaragua, the last two countries still using scuba diving in that capacity, more time to transition the fishing communities to better practices and alternative livelihoods.
Unfortunately, last month, in spite of having already developed a national transition plan, the Nicaraguan legislature voted to override the regional agreement and extend scuba diving for lobster for three more years. During this time they could continue to transition away from diving to other fishing practices and alternative livelihoods, but skeptics fear there is now a track record of postponement and in the meantime the divers will keep getting “bent,” paralyzed and die as they try to survive in the poorest and most forgotten part of Central America.
Now all eyes have turned to the government of Honduras.
With Nicaragua having backtracked, there is pressure from some of the Honduran boat owners to keep kicking the can down the road and similarly renege on the national and international commitment to ban scuba diving for lobster. About 35 large dive boats remain in operation, each employing dozens of divers. With overcapacity in the dive fleet and declines in lobster landings, many of these boat owners are in debt. Understandably perhaps, some prefer to stick with what they know despite diminishing returns, rather than face the uncertainty of a transition.
But discussions are underway with the Central American Economic Integration Bank and their new Markets for Biodiversity project to provide a solution that can help finance the transition of these boats to alternative fisheries, and possibly alleviate some of their debt. Ultimately the closure can provide a real opportunity to restructure parts of the Honduran fishing sector to improve both its sustainability and profitability.
And in the communities of the Moskitia, viable solutions are also emerging. Local leaders and fishing groups have been developing innovative plans for locally managed lobster fisheries, which could easily supply to the same international market for lobster. The idea is to increase the financial returns to local communities and thus provide the economic incentive for socially and ecologically sustainable practices.
International attention on this issue is growing. Darden Restaurants, the owners of Red Lobster and many other seafood focused restaurants, buys around 40% of the lobsters exported from Honduras. They recently wrote a strongly worded letter to the President asking him to complete Honduras’s commitment to put an end to scuba diving for lobster. In fact, since 2009, Darden has been partnering with USAID and local NGOs to try to help put an end to scuba diving by supporting efforts to develop alternative incomes for the Miskito communities as well as the transition plan to safer and more sustainable fishing techniques.
The government of Honduras has taken all the right steps so far. Most importantly, they have demonstrated a sophisticated understanding that the lobster scuba fishery is not just a fisheries problem. It is also a social justice issue, a public health issue, and an economic development opportunity. So the government has been involving not just the Ministry of Agriculture but also other key government agencies in developing their national position and transition strategy.
Supporters from many sectors, including a major international buyer, government aid agencies, multilateral banks, and NGOs, are ready to help build a path to sustainable lobster fishing and a better life for fishermen and their families in the Honduran Moskitia. With the clear and decisive leadership from the highest levels of government, Honduras, unlike Nicaragua, can turn the corner and move away from its lobster diving past, towards a new future of sustainable fisheries with healthier and more prosperous coastal communities.