Lobster divers risk lives, ecosystems

Many diving Nicaraguan fishermen remove lobsters that are young and undersized.

Kudos to Red Lobster for taking steps toward promoting healthier marine ecosystems and safe fishing practices.

According to a recent National Public Radio report, one-fifth of the United States’ lobster supply comes from Nicaragua, much from the country’s Mosquito Coast. The towns depend on lobster fishing for their residents’ livelihoods, but that dependence is causing safety and ecology issues.

Many fishermen dive to catch the lobsters, and remove not only the full-grown adults, but also many that are young and undersized. This depletes the size of the next generation of lobsters and is making it increasingly harder for the fishermen to catch enough lobsters to make ends meet. It also upsets the marine ecosystem that cannot handle the removal of so many smaller animals.

In addition, diving for a living poses serious safety issues. Of the 5,000 Nicaraguan divers, approximately 500 per year get decompression sickness – “the bends” – a painful, often crippling condition occurring when divers ascend too quickly to the surface. The condition is prevalent on the Mosquito Coast, as many of the divers use old, rusty equipment lacking functional depth and air gauges. The divers dive too deep for too long, and do not properly ascend. Decompression chambers needed to correct the condition are expensive and rare.

Red Lobster has adopted a policy of not accepting dive-caught lobsters from Nicaragua. The company will only buy lobsters caught in traps, a method eliminating safety issues and reducing the number of undersized lobsters caught – the traps have doors small enough for the small ones to escape, but keep the full-sized ones. Unfortunately, other major buyers such as Atalanta Corporation and ConAgra Foods have not implemented this policy, and this needs to change.

The Nicaraguan government wants to enforce safety standards for training and equipment for divers, but the process is expensive and divers fear their livelihoods will be taken away.

The solution for this problem is in the economics. U.S. buyers must eliminate the demand for dive-caught lobsters so Nicaraguans will be forced to make changes that will save their livelihood for the future, and perhaps even their lives.