Fishermen vote to save lobsters and lives

Posted: 4 October 2002

The fishermen of Cayos Cochinos, an archipelago off Honduras's northern Miskito Coast, recently took the bold step of banning all scuba diving for lobster - a move that will mean less money for its poor residents, but will guarantee long-term survival for the marine resources on which they depend.

For years, the industrial fishing industry has encouraged the Garífuna and Miskito indigenous people who inhabit three of Cayos Cochinos' 12 isles to use scuba gear to dive deep for valuable spiny lobster (Panulirus argus). A lobster dinner can cost up to $80 in a mainland restaruant so the pressure to harvest as many lobsters as possible has been intense. The catch is also exported to the United States.

Health risks

Without training, the fishermen might make as many as 12 dives a day. The accumulation of nitrogen in their bodies often resulted in debilitating crippling - and there are no decompression chambers on the islands. Today some 100 men are incapacitated from diving too deep and too often for lobster.

To help residents to find a solution to continuing health problems, crashing lobster populations and destruction of the coral reef surrounding the cayes, the World Wildlife Fund arranged a field trip to Mexico for a group of the Cayos Cochinos fishermen. They visited Banco Chinchorro, off the Yucatán Peninsula's southern coast, where local fishermen have organised themselves into co-operatives that negotiate fair prices for catches and have banned all fishing with scuba gear within protected areas.

According to Sylvia Marín, WWF representative for Central America, the exchange was an effective way of convincing the Cayos Cochinos residents to adopt more sustainable methods of harvesting the marine resources that provide their income. "It makes a difference when people can talk with their peers, not just with scientists," she says.

New law

Earlier this year, the Cayos Cochinos fishermen lobbied the Honduran government to impose a decree that prohibits fishing with scuba gear in the protected area. In part of this area, fishermen are permitted to free-dive for lobster and to set nets or traps, using only motor-less boats. No industrial fishing boats are permitted within the protected zone.

According to Adrián Oviedo, director of the Honduran Coral Reef Foundation, a conservation group that administrates the protected area, "Prohibiting lobster fishing with scuba gear limits the volume that can be extracted, while at the same time, protects the divers."

Natividad Arzú is vice president of the Chachahuate Garífuna community of Cayos Cochinos, and has been a fisherman since he was 15. He explains that fishing with scuba gear "gave us short-term profits, but over the long-term there would be no work or resources." He adds that the scuba diving was not particularly lucrative, since divers would receive only 45 Lempiras (less than $3) per pound of lobster.

For Román Norales, a former angler who now sells fish locally, the new ministerial decree is "perfect, because it protects the worker as well as production." He distributes nearly 80 per cent of the fish that are sold in restaurants in the coastal city of La Ceiba and says he is convinced that scuba diving for fish and crustaceans "destroys the richness of the sea."

The Cayos Cochinos protected area which extends five nautical miles around the cayes, includes two forested islands and 12 sandy cayes. Nearly 230 species of marine life swim in its waters, while some 350 people live on three of the 12 cayes. The archipelago's coral reef is part of the Mesoamerican Caribbean Reef System, which extends for 620 miles from the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico to Honduras' Bay Islands.

Source: Eco-Exchange (August-September 2002), published by the Rainforest Alliance. Read more about this project at: Eco-Index