The Miskitos are superb fishermen. Dozens of tiny, mangrove-rimmed islands called cays, and patches of coral reef make their homeland an exceptionally productive fishing ground. The waters are alive with creatures, including three species of endangered sea turtles, spiny lobster, shrimp and an unsurveyed array of fish. This piscatorial treasure draws fleets of foreign fishermen eager to steal as much of the bounty as they can. They especially want the lobster, which they sell at handsome profits to U.S. buyers.
Conservationists and the Miskito Indians had hoped that, by establishing a protected area, they could better manage the rich resources of the Cays and gain some protection from the lobster "pirates." According to Nietschmann, a professor of geography at the University of California at Berkeley, well-managed fisheries would help the Miskitos to support themselves, finance conservation projects and develop the impoverished region. Unfortunately, says Nietschmann, in the past few years "resource pirates and drug traffickers have flooded into this huge, unpatrolled and isolated region, overexploiting the lobsters and jeopardizing the communities."
In 1993, lobster boats from neighboring Honduras and other countries "stole" some $25 million worth of lobsters, he calculates. The pirates buy the lobsters from the Miskitos who make their living diving for the bottom-dwelling crustaceans. They often dive without adequate equipment and are frequently injured by making successive deep plunges. Scores of Miskito Indians have been killed or paralyzed from diving accidents, Nietschmann says. Sometimes they are paid with cocaine instead of cash.
The illegal fishing boats "launder" lobsters through Honduras, selling much of their catch to the Red Lobster restaurant chain in the United States, reports Nietschmann: "A lobster-tail dinner in the United States is tied to paralyzed Indian divers, cocaine trafficking and blocked protection of the major center of tropical coastal biodiversity in the Western Hemisphere."
Perpetually strapped for funds, the Nicaraguan Navy makes little effort to patrol the coastal waters. In an attempt to curb diving accidents, Nietschmann, marine biologist Bill Alevizon, and the Florida-based Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) initiated a scuba-training course on the Miskito coast to educate divers about how to avoid air embolisms and decompression sickness, called "the bends." The CCC also offered training to local doctors in how to treat scuba-diving injuries.
"There was a lack of understanding among the Miskito divers," says Jeanne Mortimer, program manager of the CCC. "Many of the divers didn't understand why they were getting the bends. They tend to make many deep dives in one day." But education doesn't always stop injuries. "Now they may understand why it is dangerous to make so many deep dives," Mortimer explains, "but they may still decide to dive, because they can make a lot of money by local standards." Miskito divers in Nicaragua earn about $6 a pound for lobster tails. "Whatever the local rate for lobster tails," says Nietschmann, "the pirates will pay a dollar more."
Red Lobster, which helped fund the dive-training program, claims its tails are clean. Last year, the company began tracking the origins of the lobster they buy, to ensure that they purchase only from fishing vessels with legal permits. Further, Red Lobster says they buy only trap-caught lobsters. "Our position is that we do not want to and will not buy deep-dive caught lobster," maintains Dick Monroe, vice-president of public relations at Red Lobster. "We have agreements with our suppliers in Honduras to that effect. It's been more difficult having agreements understood in Nicaragua, because of communication problems."
But conservationists don't agree that a fishery based exclusively on traps is the answer. "First of all, if [Red Lobster] says it isn't going to use the services the Miskito divers are providing, that is not going to help these people," says CCC's Mortimer. "Second, trap-caught lobsters could be even more harmful to the environment. Fishing boats drop traps and damage the coral reef. There's also the risk that they will lose traps or just dump them in the ocean when they wear out." Until they rust away, abandoned traps continue to attract and kill fish and lobsters.
Nietschmann is stronger in his objections. "I call them the traplines of death," he says. "The fishing boats set traps in 125-mile lines, one trap every 50 yards. These are all illegal trap sets." To locate the traps, Nietschmann reports, fishing vessels are using the sophisticated Global Positioning System. This satellite technology, originally designed to allow the military to pinpoint locations, now enables anyone who obtains a little black receiver to do the same.
The intricacies of the lobster dilemma make Dick Monroe sigh. "This is not a problem with an easy answer," he concedes. "We are dealing with countries going through horrible civil wars with high illiteracy and poverty rates, and a resource that is theirs to take advantage of. Our leadership is setting specific standards ... If we can do that and have our government talk to their governments, maybe they can resolve this and have a long-term viable resource."
Residents of the 31 Miskito Coast villages, meanwhile, are working together to protect the Cays. This is not the first time they've had to defend their homeland: The Miskitos fought off successive Spanish governments and, in the 80s, were forced to take up arms against the Sandinistas during Nicaragua's nine-year civil war. With support from Natural Resources Minister Incer and U.S. conservation groups, the Miskitos have formed a grassroots organization to manage the newly established protected area. But they recognize that their futures are linked to their ability to keep foreigners from depleting the coastal fisheries.
As a resident of the Miskito coastal village of Layasiksa told Nietschmann: "We went as far as giving our lives in the war to protect our territory. We fought to defend these resources. We can't just let others steal them away."
Consumers can help, says Nietschmann, by asking questions about the lobsters they purchase, to pressure companies like Red Lobster into establishing strong health, safety and environmental standards.
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|Title Annotation:||Currents; Red Lobster restaurants and their Miskito fishermen|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1994|
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