For the last week, Dr. Nochetto and I’ve been traveling to the fishing villages to meet with lobster divers from this region, the reason Matias and I are here in the first place. Harvesting divers exist around the world, although it seems to predominate in the tropics. One of the major harvests is the spiny lobster. They certainly collect other things, but lobster seems to be the primary money maker. The Brazilian divers dive similarly to the other two groups we have began to work with, but with a twist again—there is always local adaptation.
In Honduras, the divers dive off of industrial boats with 40 to 60 divers on board, in deplorable conditions, far from shore. In Isla Natividad, the divers work in teams of three, one boat captain, one line tender and one diver per boat. They still dive well beyond any acceptable or established limit, but they represent the more positive end of the spectrum. The divers here in Brazil dive with two divers on a boat, two line tenders and a boat captain. They only have a single compressor between them and only a small propane gas cylinder converted to a volume tank. If the compressor shuts down for any reason, their air supply is extremely limited. And this doesn’t account for completely inadequate filtration, hoses or other equipment. They work for a boat owner who takes half of the profits, but maintains the boat and the equipment. The crew splits the rest of the money—not sure if the divers take more than the tenders.
The problems: these divers are diving for 1 to 3 hours at depths in the 90 to 120 foot range and sometimes much deeper. They have little understanding of the signs and symptoms of decompression sickness and no medical support. While they aren’t diving as remotely as the Honduran divers, the local medical care has no idea how to handle an injured diver, not understanding oxygen first aid or the need for recompression therapy. The director of the public health program in Rio do Fogo told us yesterday that “thank God we’ve never had to use the oxygen.” They should be using oxygen all the time, and definitely any time a diver feels a problem. The only chamber in the area is operated by the Brazilian Navy. They will treat divers, but it doesn’t seem like they like to do it.
The secondary problem here is the overharvesting of the reefs. These men are cleaning out the ocean bottom of viable lobster. In some places, the divers take undersized lobster and females with eggs. The depletion of the resources, and this is true in all cases of Harvesting Divers, is causing them to dive deeper and deeper, putting themselves are greater risk.
An unusual twist to the lobster diving here in Brazil, it is against the law to hunt for fish with spear guns or collect lobster using compressed air. But, once the divers have collected the lobster and brought them to shore, it is not against the law to keep these lobster. The only way authorities can enforce the law is if they catch the divers in the water with fish and lobster in their hands. We’ve had several discussions about the creation system like is done with Brazilian wood to certify that the wood as harvested in a responsible legal manner. Any restaurant caught serving lobster that was caught using these unsafe and exploitative means would be fined.
Sergio Viegas, the director of DAN Brasil, is looking to establish a simplified training program here to educate the divers to better understand the signs and symptoms of decompression sickness. He also wants to educate the medical community on how to care for divers when they are injured. Whether the idea of fines for restaurants is the best approach or not, no one knows. What is certain, though, is that there are no simple answers and it will take involvement from many different groups to correct this problem—environmental organizations, the government, healthcare providers and DAN.
For more information, check the recent National Geographic highlight.