The Hunt for Red Gold

Photo by Michael Bonfigli
Cayucero at sea Photo by Michael Bonfigli

I have never been a big fan of eating lobster or really had any sort of opinion on them for that matter. I mean, I love seafood, but lobster just isn’t really my thing. After reading an article about lobster diving along the Miskito Coast, my thoughts on lobster changed. Lobster is no longer an empty space in my brain, and here’s why.

The Miskito Coast is an indigenous region of Central America, specifically Honduras and Nicaragua, where the lobster industry thrives. Commonly referred to as “red gold,” lobster diving has been the main source of income on the Miskito Coast since the 1970s, but it did not evolve into an industry until the 1980s, when demand for lobster increased in the United States. Besides drug trafficking, catching lobster is really the only option for men living along the coast. But what once used to be an easy and safe occupation, has now turned into a dangerous and life-threatening line of work that is the main cause of injury and devastation among families living along the Miskito Coast.

Typical diving trips last about 12 days. Industrial size boats pick up divers on the Bay Islands of Honduras, and in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, and are transported to the Miskito keys to the lobster bays. Upon arrival to the lobster bed, scuba tanks are loaded into individual canoes, and the men are ready for work. There are two jobs a Miskito Indian can choose from while working on the boat, a diver (buzo), or a canoeman (cayucero).  Both work hand in hand, and combine their expertise to catch as many lobsters as they can from their trip out to sea.  When the day is over, they return to the main ship with all the other buzos and cayuceros to collect all the lobsters caught from the day and to get ready for the next.

The lobster industry along the Miskito coast is much different from its beginnings in the 1980s. Lobsters were plentiful, and it was not necessary to go on 12-day excursions or dive to deep depths just to catch lobsters. As demand for lobster increased, lobsters became less available at shallow depths, forcing divers to search deeper for their “red gold.” Due to the lack of education the Miskito Indians have available to them, most divers do not know the requirements or health effects that come along with diving to deeper depths. Aside from not being trained or educated, divers were not given the proper equipment for their dives. Basic items divers need, besides oxygen tanks and masks, include pressure gauges, buoyancy compensators, and weight belts. The pressure gauges are especially important because they notify the diver when it is time to ascend in order to have sufficient time to let the body readjust to the decreasing pressure as they reach the surface.

Most, if not all the time, the divers will experience something called decompression sickness. As a diver continues to swim to deeper depths, the air in their body becomes compressed. When a diver ascends too quickly, the air in the body expands and forms nitrogen rich bubbles, which can get lodged in joints or along the spinal cord causing paralysis. In some cases, the bubbles can reach the brain, get lodged in a capillary, and cause an arterial gas embolism, which can be fatal.  Most divers go through about 16 tanks a day; about three to four times the accepted limit.  When divers begin to feel ill during their fishing trips, they continue despite their symptoms because they need to earn some kind of wage. When divers become too sick to continue their work, they are left on the boat, medically unattended, until they return. The U.S. navy recommends that a resurfaced diver be provided treatment within five minutes of resurfacing, but Miskito divers would be lucky to get help the next day since the area is so far away from treatment facilites. The only way to treat decompression sickness is through the use of a hyperbaric chamber (the nearest one is about 200 miles away). It simulates the pressure the diver was at before he surfaced, and slowly decreases the pressure, mimicking the ascent, to allow the nitrogen bubbles to be expelled, thus dislodging them. The treatment usually lasts a few hours, and it isn’t uncommon for many others to be waiting their turn. Although chances at recovery are generally possible, treatment through the use of a hyperbaric chamber does not always guarantee recovery. Since most divers wait more than half a day to make their way to the chamber, chances of recovery are slim.

The situation of the Miskito Coast is so grim, it makes it really difficult for me to eat or enjoy lobster. There is so much more to this situation than I have space for, but I recommend watching a video on Current TV called Cocaine and Lobster. It’s a bit lengthy (30 minutes), but it’s definitely worth the watch.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Asiago says:

    Welcome back to another semester Cristina! Neat Post! I will check out the video clip.

  2. Sammi Richardson says:


    My company’s blog, Eco 18, has a very relevant article to yours. It’s also about Hoduran lobsters being caught and how it’s so dangerous.
    I believe that your readers would find the article informative.

    Thank you.

    1. Cristina says:

      Thanks Sammi!

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