THE HIGH STAKES OF LOBSTER DINNERS
About a year ago I read an article on the Miskito people of Honduras. I’m not one to share much on social media, but I did share this article. As a dive instructor in Roatan, Honduras, it struck a special chord with me. The article, to keep it short, discussed the grave dangers that the local population face daily so that the lobster and sea cucumber demands of North America and Asia can be met.
These men, while earning very little money, have no formal dive education. Not only that, but the equipment they use also contributes to the dangers of their work. Because of this, a good number of them end up with some form of decompression sickness (DCS) or worse. Rather than drone on about the injustices of the world and the expendability of poverty-stricken men, I’d like to focus on a positive aspect of this situation and how you and I can help.
For years I sat around teaching my students about nitrogen loading and how following the rules of the dive course will prevent most cases of DCS. I’d even mention to them that most of the people that use the recompression chamber on the island happened to be local lobster divers and the reasons why, mostly as a way to reinforce the fact that they stay within their bottom times and dive conservatively. I thought I was doing my part by educating future divers to dive safely and appreciate the oceans’ resources. However, someone somewhere was taking a much more direct approach to tackle the problem.
In fact, this someone was somewhere not very far from me at all. Roughly 25 or so miles away on Utila there is a small land mass known as Pigeon Cay that’s home to most of the fisherman and lobster divers on Utila. It’s also home to a small dive school called Utila Cays Diving. The owner/operator Bogdan Stadniciuc contacted me about a project he’s working on hoping I’d be game enough to do a write up on it and get the information out there as much as possible. How could I say no?
Bogdan has been on the cay for many years and so has witnessed the repercussions first hand. From the moment he arrived on the small island back in 2008, he noticed the side effects of DCS with many of the men limping and on crutches. It was a bit eye-opening for me to speak with someone who had been so close to the situation. I think for most dive professionals, it’s a bit out of sight out of mind. We hear about it, but we never really see it happen. For Bogdan, it was all too real.
He described the issues on Pigeon Cay with great detail. The lobster divers, as mentioned previously, have no formal dive education. The knowledge gets passed down generationally, along with many harmful habits and misconceptions about general dive theory. They know about DCS but not all of the causes and they don’t have any safety gear. In fact, much of the equipment they do have is often antiquated, substandard and incomplete. Many of the tanks haven’t been pressure tested within standards. Many divers dive without a depth gauge or a pressure gauge so they surface when they run out of air. Generally this means a much faster ascent than recommend, especially when they are often diving to depths deeper than the recommended recreational depth limit, which is 130 feet. Anything deeper than this generally requires special training and equipment, of which they have none.
The list goes on: their surface interval is about as long as it takes to change tanks—this is not nearly enough time to off-gas properly. They do upwards of eight dives in a single day, only performing a safety stop on the last dive—assuming they have enough air. When they do come down with DCS, an in-water recompression is performed—this is not recommended and is not adequate treatment. The island recompression chamber can’t afford to treat them anymore, but most often their pride would get in the way of proper treatment anyhow, often requiring a diver to be unconscious or paralyzed before they step foot in the chamber.
Eventually Bogdan had had enough and decided to act. He contacted Kisty Engel from the Utila Hyberbaric Chamber & Trauma Center—sponsored by Bay Islands College of Diving, The Utila Lodge, and The Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center—and from there they slowly got the ball rolling. They realized the solution to this problem is the solution to most problems: education and time.
They reached out to the locals and set up a meeting at the Cays. Coincidentally enough, the meeting had to be postponed due to a lobster diver coming down with a serious case of DCS a few days beforehand. He was temporarily paralyzed and had to be rushed to the Utila Hyperbaric Chamber & Trauma Center. As usual, fundraisers were necessary to pay for the services.
This put an exclamation mark on the necessity of such a program for the community and two weeks later, when the meeting finally took place, it was packed with not only lobster divers, but their families. The Utila Lobster Diver Program was born.
With the help of organizations such as Diver’s Alert Network (DAN) and PADI, they were able to get funding to help launch his program. The program is designed to, first and foremost, give the divers a formal diving education through the PADI open water course. While they understand this isn’t necessarily going to change all of their bad habits, most notably their maximum depths, at least they can begin to grasp the causes of DCS.
In addition to preventative measures, the program also includes the Emergency First Responder course to teach first aid procedures in the event that an emergency situation does occur. It also focuses on signs and symptoms of DCS which will hopefully lead to seeking proper treatment sooner.
Lastly, the program has a lion fish containment course. If you don’t know about the unfortunate lion fish, it is an invasive species in the Caribbean that grew quickly out of control damaging the local fish populations. It is a very hardy species thriving well in its new environment. A popular, temporary solution to this is to spear and contain the fish to be brought up to the surface. If you haven’t had lion fish, it is a delicious fish and I highly recommend a tasting. The fish’s flesh is gaining popularity as a source of protein in the fish markets and restaurants in North America.
By training the divers to safely secure lion fish, and in conjunction with a new lion fish factory being built on the Cays, it’s a viable source of income for the fishermen outside of lobster season and possibly replacing lobster as their main source of income.
The program is reaching out to manufactures of diving and safety equipment and is also accepting gear donations. If you own a dive center and have just replaced your slightly used gear, chances are it’s in much better shape than the equipment used to pull up all those lobster dinners. In addition, there is a GoFundMe page so the average Joe can make contributions as well.
The program is just getting off the ground and is a necessary step to change the situation. If everyone carries on with their heads in the ground, shoveling lobster in their mouths, absolutely nothing will change save for the ever shrinking spiny lobster population in the Caribbean. While they have made a successful first run at things, it is very much a work in progress. Funding is low. Equipment and man hours are not free.
The Utila Lobster Diver Program very much relies on donations if it’s going to be a successful pilot for other areas which is also why a documentary is being made. The hope is that others may use this outline as a means to start correcting a horrendous and often overlooked issue. Stay tuned for their documentary scheduled for release towards the end of July, 2018.