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A taste of extinction.

I'm reminded of just how tasty extinction can be on my last night in Puerto Cabezas, a gritty port town in the northwestern region of Nicaragua. I order langosta a la plancha in a seaside restaurant where a stiff breeze blows from the ocean and local pop music thumps from an adjacent disco. The waitress brings out my food: three grilled lobster tails, smothered in butter. I jab my fork into one of the tails and out pops a perfect slab of meat--stiff, yet moist. The strings of lobster slide down my throat, aided by a local beer named Victoria.

These tails are small; I wonder whether they are too small. The minimum legal length for a lobster tail in Nicaragua and the United States is five-and-a-half inches of five ounces. If the lobster is below that size, it means that the creature hasn't had the chance to reproduce. Eating the lobsters before they procreate can lead to the end of the species. When times are good, there's no need for fishermen to sell undersized lobster. But in recent years, times have not been so good. The miniature, apparently undersized lobster on my plate causes me to hesitate. I consider taking a shell home, measuring it to find out whether I am doing my part to destroy this species. But I decide I don't want to know. Besides, the meat is too good.

Nicaragua is but one link in a chain of destruction of sea life that is becoming all too common across the globe. In April, the U.S. government released its first serious study of the oceans in thirty years. The report detailed the steady destruction of water quality and sea life due to increasing pollution and overfishing. The U.S. Commission on Oceans' historic declaration came just months after a study by Canadian scientists, which was published in Nature magazine last year. The article said that 90 percent of the world's large ocean species, including cod and tuna, had disappeared in the last fifty years.

Panulirus argus, or spiny tail lobster, as it's known, isn't exactly in the same trouble as these other species. But many in the lobster business are worried. In Florida, authorities instituted a six-month closed season on lobsters due to fears of overfishing. After stocks dropped as much as 40 percent in the last three years off its coast, the Nicaraguan government created a three-month closed season that will be extended to four months next year. "If they continue like this, in five years there won't be any more lobster in Nicaragua," says Miguel Moranco, the head of the Nicaraguan fisheries department. "It's like caviar," says one Miami-based lobster importer/exporter who wanted to be identified simply as Carlos. "Today, we ship it out by the box. Tomorrow, we'll be shipping it out by the can."

Still, neither Carlos nor any other lobster importer/exporter has slowed down his business. It's too good. Spiny tail lobster fetches close to $15 per pound on the open market--$16.15 this spring at Fulton Fish market in New York for a nine-ounce tail from Nicaragua. Compare that with Maine lobster, which usually gets closer to $7 per pound. The "shorts," as the smaller tails are known, end up as "surf and turf," of as part of a salad of lobster bisque. "Surf and turf" poses a particularly difficult problem for "short" lobsters since most restaurants demand the tails curl nicely around the meat. "If it doesn't look good," Carlos says, "they don't want it." Carlos adds that he's offered to sell longer tails and cut them in half so they fit on the plate. But, he says, the restaurants reject the idea.

In the last fifteen years, lobster fishing has become big business in Nicaragua. Last year alone, lobster represented close to 10 percent of all Nicaraguan exports and half of the country's fish exports.

Lobster fishing also provides jobs. Most of the harvesting is done along the impoverished eastern coast where thousands of Miskito Indians make their living on the water. Some of them cast nets for fish from small rowboats, but many others dive for a living from the fishing boats that troll up and down the shoreline. These divers gather nearly half of the four million lobsters harvested off Nicaragua's Atlantic seaboard, while traps gather the other half. The divers are cheap labor: They get between $2 and $3.50 per pound of lobster, no matter the size. The divers are also more effective than traps and, as I found out, just as expendable.

On any given day in Puerto Cabezas, hundreds of divers are summoned to the village's lone pier. They pile fifty to sixty men on vessels load ed with small rowboats and diving gear. These divers have just a few hours of rudimentary training, if any at all. The equipment they use is also old and poorly maintained. Many tanks don't have pressure, or air gauges, or depth finders. The vessel carries the divers miles from shore. Lobster used to be plentiful at forty feet, but U.S. demand has exhausted the population. The lobster trade now depletes the divers, too.

Armed with a lobster prod, a trap, and a rusty air tank, the divers begin their long days. The vessel drops the small rowboats at nearby trolling areas and the divers begin to scour the reefs for the product. For hours they go to depths that make even the most experienced divers shudder: ninety or 100 feet is normal; 120 feet is not unusual. This goes on for days. "It's like giving someone a car without brakes," activist Robert Izdepski told me about the hazards the divers face.

Izdepski, who is a longtime diver based in Louisiana, has organized Sub Ocean Safety, a nongovernmental group that tries to protect the Miskito Indians from their bosses and themselves. It's hard. Izdepski says $2 a pound is good money for these men, enough to feed their families. He adds that most divers in the United States would be wary of making more than two dives to a 100-foot depth in a single day and would certainly resist repeating the dangerous dives for several days in a row.

When a person hits these depths, the pressure of the ocean compresses the nitrogen breathed into the respiratory system. When the diver resurfaces, the nitrogen expands again. If the diver resurfaces too fast, the nitrogen can expand too quickly and cause a blood clot. This leads to decompression disease, more commonly known as the bends. Akin to a stroke, the bends are particularly brutal on nerve endings, which can only survive a short time without air.

When this happens, the divers surface in crooked, uncompromising positions. Their nerve endings are destroyed; their spinal cords collapse. Some are paralyzed for life. Others have to walk with the use of canes. Many die. In recent years along the Miskito Coast, the bends has become as common as a cold. Of the 5,000 men who dive in Nicaragua, as many as 500 suffer from the bends each year. The effect this disease has is painfully evident in Puerto Cabezas, where men in wheelchairs looking for handouts are strewn along the sides of the roads. Some with crutches or canes struggle to keep their rickety bodies moving forward; others while away the time in the small, wooden shacks that make up the majority of the housing here.

"I came up fine," Barnabe Frances, a thirty-nine-year old who worked as a diver for ten years before getting the bends last year, told me. "But after a while, I couldn't move. I couldn't eat. I couldn't pee."

Frances looks well beyond his years. His face is worn and wrinkled. He has a protruding jaw. He walks with a limp. Twice a week, he goes to a decompression machine the U.S. Navy donated to the local hospital where I met him. He tries to stay active by walking two or three hours a day. But he doesn't have a job to support his wife and six children. In his present state, he's unemployable. "I wasn't afraid before," he explained about the diving. "I had to dive."

According to Frances, other divers, and former crew, the working conditions in these waters are atrocious: Many of them sleep on the deck; they fight for scraps of food divvied up in a roach-infested kitchen; the crew regularly trades sweets and even drugs for lobster; and the captain frequently underappraises the divers' catch. In this context, the bends becomes just another problem.

The government doesn't hold the lobster boats of processing plants liable for these "accidents," and there is no social safety net--no workers' compensation, no way to sue the boat or processing companies that employ these divers. Sometimes, Frances says, the boats simply dump men suffering from the bends back on the dock. Frances says he saw as many as forty divers die in his ten years working on the boats.

About one-fifth of the lobster the U. S. consumes comes from Nicaragua. The importers include some of the biggest names in food service: Red Lobster, ConAgra, and Atalanta.

These companies take different approaches, but all three claim they have strict requirements on the lobsters they import. Spokesmen for Red Lobster, which is owned by Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden, Bahama Breeze, Smokey Bones), say the company buys only trap-caught lobster. Red Lobster started this policy in the early 1990s after critics charged the company was neglecting the plight of the Miskito divers. The traps also have small doors so the "shorts" can escape. "It's better quality and a better way to preserve the natural resource," Mike Bernstein, a Darden spokesman, explained to me about the trap-caught lobster.

Bernstein added that his company regularly audits its suppliers to ensure they are complying with this requirement. But while this may be a noble beginning, the widespread trade of lobsters between suppliers makes it hard to track exactly where lobsters originate. And Bernstein couldn't say how often Red Lobster inspected suppliers in Nicaragua to see whether the harvesters were complying with legal size limits on all its lobster. What's more, Red Lobster buys spiny tail from U.S. distributors like Atalama, which accepts both trap and dive-caught lobster. When I pressed him about this, Bernstein refused to comment, citing "competitive reasons" for not revealing any details about the company's relationship with its suppliers.

Atalanta, which also owns a processing plant in Puerto Cabezas, seemed less troubled by the depletion of the species and the treatment of the lobster divers. "As far as the source, how they obtain it [the lobster], that's not what we do. I'm not into that part of the business," said Sam Tufano, a marketing official in Atalanta's Puerto Rico office. "As far as I'm concerned, I buy lobster. What happens with the lobster in Central, South America, or anywhere else around the world, that's for other people [to deal with] ."

Like Atalanta, officials from ConAgra Foods (Butterball, Hunt's, Banquet) claim the company is two steps removed from the process and bears no direct responsibility for labor or quality control issues in places like Nicaragua. ConAgra spokesman Bob McKeon told me his company does "spot checks" on the lobster to ensure it meets with legal standards, and its product is subject to inspections by U.S. customs officials. "We have no evidence or reason to believe that there is a noncompliance issue," McKeon said, talking about his suppliers. "We have established contracts with reputable companies."

Controlling labor standards in developing countries is a sticky issue for these companies, but so far it's not a legal one. Size limits, however, are. And after one of these "reputable" companies that supplies ConAgra was involved in the biggest short-tails scandal in Nicaraguan history, questions had to be raised. A two-year investigation by U.S. authorities revealed that the company, Marazul, was purposely mislabeling cartons of frozen short-tails to sneak past U.S. customs officials. Although authorities didn't trace the tails to ConAgra, they did find that a Canadian middleman based in Miami imported the product at the behest of Neptune, a Virginia-based seafood distribution company. The scheme fell apart when a competitor tipped off federal investigators. Prosecutors prevailed, using the Lacey Act, which prohibits the transport, sale, receipt, acquisition, of purchase of any fish or wildlife that is obtained in violation of any foreign law related to protection of natural resources. The Marazul owner, the Canadian middleman, and the vice president of Neptune all pleaded guilty in a Miami courtroom. The owner and middleman got jail time. The Neptune official got a hefty fine of $250,000.

ConAgra's seafood affiliate, Meridian, still buys lobster from Marazul. "The independent processors who Meridian does business with are responsible for adhering to Nicaraguan laws regarding lobster," McKeon wrote to me in an e-mail. "They measure the lobsters they get from local harvesters and provide us with documentation that the lobsters are in compliance with size requirements. That documentation includes labels on boxes that clearly identify the size of the lobster and corresponding shipping documents, i.e., bills of lading. Furthermore, as noted above, we do our own spot checks of lobsters to ensure that lobsters we import comply with the law. Our policy is to comply with the Lacey Act, and we expect our processors to comply with local laws as well."

For their part, Nicaraguan officials have tried to deal with both the ecological and labor issues. They have pondered, for instance, the possibility of requiring all lobster be trap-caught. This proposal, however, has met with stiff resistance from the Miskito divers who depend on the trade. "It's their only way of surviving," Alejandro Arguello, Nicaragua's vice-minister of industrial and commercial production, told me in his Managua office. "When you threaten to take that away, they say, 'What am I supposed to do to eat, to take care of my family?'"

Steven Dudley lives in Colombia, where he is the Andean bureau chief for the Miami Herald. He has reported from Latin America and the Caribbean for years and has recently published a book on Colombia entitled "Walking Ghosts."
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Author:Dudley, Steven
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:2NICA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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