The deadly toll on Honduras’s Indigenous lobster divers

The full title of this distressing article by Jeff Ernst (for The Guardian’s column “Seascape: the state of our oceans”) is “Broken by the bends: the deadly toll on Honduras’s Indigenous lobster divers.” Ernst writes that, “driven by poverty to work in the dangerous fishing industry with inadequate equipment, Miskito too often end up paralyzed or dead.” [Note that Honduras has Caribbean Sea coastlines to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. See map below.]

On the main avenue of Puerto Lempira, a man sits outside a restaurant in a wooden, hand-propelled cart and waves to another man ambling by in a cart of his own. A block down, a man in a wheelchair is pushed by a young woman past a man on crutches. At a corner, a pair of men clutching canes lounge in the shade.

It could be a description of a retirement community. But the men are of all ages, and such scenes are common across the coast of Gracias a Dios, an Indigenous territory in north-east Honduras, where decades of unsafe fishing practices have disabled thousands who dive the Caribbean Sea to harvest marine life.

According to the Center for Justice and International Law (Cejil), more than 4,000 Indigenous Miskito divers have in recent years suffered disabling injuries as a consequence of decompression sickness – the equivalent of roughly one in every nine men above the age of 14 in the entire department. At least 400 have died, and countless others have been lost at sea.

The lack of economic opportunity here in one of the country’s poorest regions leaves many residents faced with a dilemma – dive and assume the risk, or don’t and watch as your family suffers in other ways.

“That’s why the father is disabled and the son is disabled,” said Pablo Padilla, a board member of the Association of Disabled Honduran Miskito Divers (AMHBLI) who himself suffers from limited mobility, bladder and bowel dysfunction, chronic pain and weakness as a consequence of a diving accident. “I have four family members who are disabled.”

Last month, after a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights following a lawsuit filed on behalf of 42 divers, the Honduran government apologized to divers and their families for the violation of their human rights, committed to indemnify them and pledged to make systemic changes aimed at preventing future injuries.

“I have no income, no job, nothing,” said Willy Gómez, one of the divers named in the lawsuit, whose injuries left him unable to work and support his family. His case exemplifies one of the cruel ironies for divers in the region – they are driven to the work, despite knowing the dangers, out of desperate need to support their families, but then many are left so gravely injured that their economic situation ends up worse than before.

And making good on the government’s pledge of systemic change is likely to be easier said than done. “Everything [the government] said is true and sounded good, but sometimes they say things but don’t follow through,” said Gilberto Palma, a former diver who attended the ceremony and was injured last year while diving for lobster, leaving him with limited mobility and strength.

Decompression sickness, also known as the bends, occurs when divers ascend too quickly, resulting in a rapid decrease in water pressure that produces bubbles in the bloodstream which can wreak havoc on the nervous system and vital organs as well as causing many other less visible ailments.

If a patient is quickly taken to a hyperbaric, or decompression, chamber, which exposes the patient to high pressure and pure oxygen, the effects can be diminished or even reversed. Several divers who spoke with the Guardian said they had arrived to the chamber in Puerto Lempira completely paralyzed, but had regained partial mobility thanks to the treatment. Others arrive much too late. [. . .]

The problem has its roots in the 1970s when industrial fishing arrived to the region, first harvesting lobster, then conch, then – over the past decade – sea cucumbers, tubular invertebrates with leathery skin that are considered a delicacy in parts of Asia.

Overfishing has led divers to seek out marine life farther out to sea and in deeper waters, increasing the chance of injury.

“Each year you have to go deeper to find the product, so more divers die,” said one fishing boat captain. “Boats lose divers like fishermen lose a rod.” [. . .]

For full article and photographs, see

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