The scariest thing about a stormy night is not the rain, or the darkness -- pierced only by occasional lightning -- it is the sound of the wind. That deep roar that sweeps across the ocean, undeterred; the kind that moves mountains of water, creates surges, crashes boats, takes trees on transoceanic journeys, and reshapes the spirits of those who survive storms at sea. Until yesterday this coast seemed idyllic, but as we wait for the storm to subside with no place to take shelter other than our flimsy tents, the night seems to last forever.
It started raining as soon as darkness fell on our small camp on one of the dozens of keys that lay along the coast of Honduras. The Mosquitia reef, a vast and shallow system that has remained unchartered and ignored by science for the past 40 years, is where the municipality of Gracias a Dios has been producing much of the lobster and conch that is exported to the U.S. so that we can enjoy a steady supply of ocean delicacies in restaurants like Red Lobster.
Only birds -- thousands of frigates, seagulls, and pelicans -- live on these small islands. Maybe one of the reasons they are uninhabited are the swarms of hungry bugs -- minuscule flying monsters called "plumillas," that cause a tiny but incredibly itchy bite. Another reason might be that over the past decade, drug runners have found shelter in the extensive mangrove systems, offshore keys and close-knit fishing communities of this region.
I am traveling with an unlikely character, a British marine biologist who has worked here for the past 12 years. Steve Box is a tall, blond man who sticks out among the Miskito population, and yet, he moves with ease and confidence, speaking perfect Spanish. With a keen sense of diplomacy and an acute intellect he is constantly searching for ideas and solutions. His conservation hopes for the marine environment of Honduras and his vision for a more sustainable future for the lobster divers of the region are the reason I am here.
It is surprising that the lobster diving industry is one in which hundreds of people have died and thousands have been permanently maimed by the "bends" or decompression sickness -- a painful injury caused by nitrogen bubbles trapped in a diver's tissue that cause paralysis, blindness or even death. It is amazing that so many people are willing to die to earn just a few dollars. The silver lining to this horrendous industry is that because the commercial exploitation of lobster and conch has been mostly done by hand, little damage has been done to the reef and once this habitat is protected and the fishery regulated, there is hope that this reef will be conserved into the future. Thankfully, given the large numbers of disabled and dead divers --- 116 paralyzed or injured and 16 dead last year alone -- the government has decided to end this form of fishing. This will be the last "commercial diving lobster season." After that, however, hundreds of divers will be left jobless. Enter Steve Box, who with his perennial optimism has found a win-win solution that will save the fishery, conserve the reef and solve the problem of all those unemployed divers.
After the diving ban begins in 2013, he proposes the creation of an artisanal fishing reserve around the keys for the exclusive use of a newly formed fishing coop made up of retired divers. They would adopt a new sustainable, safe and effective way of harvesting lobsters.The "Cuban Casita" is a simple metal structure that invites lobsters to seek shelter underneath. Set in shallow waters, the fisherman only has to wade to his casitas to retrieve the lobsters hiding underneath. It safely allows fishermen to harvest only adult lobsters with no eggs and leave the smaller ones to finish growing.
Steve needs the support and participation of the retired divers. So as he travels around the keys, he explains to the divers that they will no longer have to work for a "boat master" -- a middle man that owns the vessel that carries them to the keys, pays them a minuscule amount per pound of lobster and turns around to sell it for a 400 percent profit to the buyers who export it. Now, they will be able to sell directly to the buyer and avoid the risk of being permanently maimed or killed by the reckless diving that is required to capture enough lobsters to make a living.
After a night spent in a very wet tent, the rain tapers off, the wind dies down and the sun peeks behind the clouds. This is a bright new day for the Miskito divers of Gracias a Dios and an even brighter one for the marine resources of the Mosquitia reef.
Photos © Cristina Mittermeier / iLCP