Report: Human tragedy stalks the prized Honduran lobster industry

  • The Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) is a coveted delicacy, with Honduras exporting $46.7 million worth of the shellfish in 2019, mainly to the U.S.
  • But its flourishing trade comes at the expense of the Indigenous Miskito community living along Honduras’s Atlantic coast, according to an investigation published in December by nonprofit news outlet Civil Eats.
  • Hundreds of Miskito lobster divers have died, and thousands more are injured or have become paralyzed in pursuit of the lobsters, the report noted.
  • So far, efforts at reforming the Honduran lobster fishery have failed to adequately address the divers’ situation, according to the investigation.

The Caribbean spiny lobster is a coveted delicacy. But its flourishing trade comes at the expense of the Indigenous Miskito community living along the Atlantic coast of Honduras, according to an investigation published in December by nonprofit news outlet Civil Eats.

The prized lobster, Panulirus argus, which Honduras exports predominantly to the U.S., was a $46.7 million industry as of 2019. Most of the lobsters come from the country’s Mosquito coast, where the Miskito live in remote villages, with few jobs available. Many men consequently take up lobster diving.

But it’s a perilous way of life, writer Alice Driver detailed in the investigation, one that’s killed hundreds of Miskito divers, and injured and paralyzed thousands more.

Driver’s visits to some of the Miskito villages paint a grim picture. Lobster boat owners take Miskito men far out to sea, where the divers, armed with decrepit, rudimentary equipment, endure grueling schedules of 12 to 18 dives per day for consecutive weeks, wildly exceeding safety recommendations. If the men dive too deep, or if their air runs out and they ascend too quickly, they risk decompression sickness, a painful condition where nitrogen gas accumulates within the body, leading to complications like paralysis and brain disorders. The only remedy is to immediately go into a decompression hyperbaric chamber. But Driver found only a single hospital equipped with one in the region. So decompression sickness is far too common, and frequently hazardous. Among the 9,000 divers in the region in 2004 (the most recent year for which data were available), nearly all had some form of decompression sickness and nearly half had partial or total disability, according to the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), an international nonprofit that represents lobster divers legally.

Boat owners, however, often refuse to cover medical expenses or extend help, Driver wrote. They also reportedly demand that the divers pry lobsters from their lairs without leaving any marks, usually by using a hammer and a metal rod with hooks. That way, the crustaceans can be sold as though they were caught in traps, which buyers prefer in order to avoid the grim labor rights issues associated with diver-caught lobster.

A diver in Honduras shows a spiny lobster.
A diver in Honduras shows a spiny lobster in this 2010 photograph. Image by USAID Biodiversity & Forestry via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

The plight of the Miskito lobster divers has previously been covered in the media, and is known in the industry. But efforts at reforming the Honduran lobster fishery have so far failed to adequately address the situation, Driver wrote.

The Civil Eats investigation highlights a fishery improvement partnership fund launched in 2013 by U.S. organizations including the Walton Family Foundation (WFF), a philanthropic arm of retail giant Walmart, along with the Darden Company, which owns chain restaurants like Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse and at the time owned Red Lobster. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) managed the fund.

The fund aimed to support fisheries improvement projects (FIPs) to make the Honduran spiny lobster fishery more sustainable, mainly by addressing overfishing. It focused on Honduran lobster because Darden’s Red Lobster sourced its catch from the Honduran fishery, Mark Shields, a senior communications officer at WFF, told Mongabay in an email.

“WFF supported that fund alongside NFWF and Darden because the foundation works from the idea that companies can — and should — help in sustainability efforts alongside communities, advocates, NGOs, governments, and others,” Shields said.

“The hope, at the time, was that the fund would attract support from other seafood companies and encourage them to make improvements in their supply chains.”

But things didn’t pan out as planned. Darden sold Red Lobster less than a year later, stopped supporting the fund, and no other funders stepped forward, Shields said. He added that WFF’s support to the NFWF-operated fund “was a one-time grant.”

NFWF used the fund to support several grantees, who worked toward making the lobster fishery fully traceable from boat to consumer. This was done, according to a report by NFWF, in part to enable buyers to distinguish between dive- and trap-caught lobsters, through actions like setting up vessel monitoring and landing data collection systems, as well as licensing and registering fishers. However, Driver wrote that in the process, boats relying on divers to catch lobsters were also licensed.

The FIP’s direct actions to address the diver-caught lobsters, Driver found, was to encourage the use of traps and get some U.S. importers to pledge not to buy dive-caught lobsters.

When asked about why the FIP didn’t address the divers’ issues to begin with, Shields told Mongabay that FIPs were originally developed to address ecological improvements, not labor issues. However, he added that WFF has since funded “millions of dollars’ worth of grantmaking to address human rights abuses and forced labor in fisheries globally.”

The prized lobster, Panulirus argus, which Honduras exports predominantly to the U.S., was a $46.7 million industry as of 2019.
The Caribbean spiny lobster, Panulirus argus, which Honduras exports predominantly to the U.S., was a $46.7 million industry as of 2019. Image by NOAA (Public domain).
A Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus).
Most of the lobsters come from the country’s Mosquito coast, where Indigenous Miskito people live in remote villages. Image by Pauline Walsh Jacobson via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

For the Miskito divers, though, very little has changed, Driver found. In the villages she visited, paralyzed former divers in wheelchairs are a common sight. Many men have died on the job. Yet their sons continue to pursue lobster diving since there’s no other work, Driver reported.

Boat captains also continue to pressure divers to catch lobsters without leaving any marks on them, so they can be sold as trap-caught ones, Chris Williams, a fisheries expert and social scientist at the International Transport Workers Federation, told Driver. Moreover, he said, diver- and trap-caught lobsters become mixed at processing facilities, making it difficult to determine their true source.

According to Williams, most Honduran lobster landings still come from diving, and Honduran factories are aware of this.

In 2004, families of 42 divers filed a case against the Honduran state at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, for failing to regulate and supervise the dangerous conditions Miskito divers work in. The court ruled in the divers’ favor in 2021. It ordered the government to pay monetary compensation to the 42 families, and to regulate the fishing industry and oversee the condition of the divers.

But Driver pointed out there are many more disabled divers still waiting for justice, many of whom couldn’t participate in the case because of a lack of finances. Moreover, dive-caught lobster is still finding its way into U.S. markets, according to the Civil Eats investigation, although it was unable to identify the main buyers.

The NFWF-operated FIP fund has concluded. But another organization, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), has an ongoing FIP in Honduras that aims to make the trap-caught lobster fishery sustainable. With companies like Red Lobster and Costco Wholesale listed as participants, the FIP aims to meet the Marine Stewardship Council sustainability certification standard by December 2024.

The WWF-run FIP doesn’t tackle the dive-caught lobster fishery. But in its reports, WWF says it is making efforts to address labor and human rights issues within the trap-caught fishery. Red Lobster, on its website, notes that it does not serve dive-caught lobster caught from Central America “due to diver safety.”

The questions of who is buying dive-caught lobsters, though, and how buyers can tell them apart from trap-caught ones, remain unresolved. As the Civil Eats story reveals, this dangerous mode of lobster fishing continues to flourish, putting divers’ lives at risk every day.

Banner image: A Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus). Image by Kevin Bryant via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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