The Little Regulated and Motivated by Greed Lobster Industry Suffers its Biggest Disaster.
The 70-ton Capt. Wally capsized at night and the boat’s crew and divers found themselves upside down, in the dark waters in Western Caribbean. The men sleeping in deck cubbyholes could get out, but the people below deck were trapped. Twenty-seven bodies were picked up by the rescue boats and another nine people were reported missing and likely dead.
According to the ships manifest 66 people were reported to be on board originally. Fifty-five people were picked up by rescuers floating and holding to debris, but it soon came to light that the boat had 91 men on board. The 60-70 foot lobster fishing boats with capacity of 30 to 40 people routinely take on doubles that and dive boats with crews of 100 are not unheard of Photos of Capt. Waly overloaded with cargo and men begun circulating in social media.“I was shocked to see that,” said Russell Muñoz, a Roatan based captain who worked three seasons as captain of a lobster dive boat in mid 2000s. Muñoz says the conditions back then were not as inhumane, or unsafe as they are now.
These types of disasters in Honduras are taking place more and more often. On October 18, 2018 the fishing boat, Bonito, captained by Wellington Rivers Hamilton from Milton Bight, capsized and sank off Honduras Gracias a Dios, 60 Nautical miles north of Caratasca Sand Bar. “Worse thing is the darkness. You have no idea where you are going,” says Ebanks. Out of the over 80 people on board of Bonito two were confirmed dead and several were reported missing.
The Honduran lobster diving industry has become permeated by a culture of greed, pursuing profit at all costs, full of suffering and a disregard for human life. The industry is surrounded by uncaring oversight organization and incompetent, avaricious government officials. The lobster divers themselves decimate the fishing grounds spearing anything that moves; sea cucumbers, crabs and fish.
“If they have an abundant fishing trip, they often go to La Mosquitia to trade lobster for liquor, then they spend the rest of the dive trip drunk. They often fight and sometimes are killed in personal fights on the [crowded] boat,” on condition of anonymity told Paya magazine a woman whose family members often go out to fish on lobster boats. “They won’t even leave [port] if there is no marihuana.”
While the fishing grounds are increasingly depleted, there is a growing number of Hondurans, especially Miskito willing to risk their lives or paralysis for meager wages. The conditions and stress, danger of the work take some to the point of insanity. “Some go crazy, some dive high on marijuana… Some as go as deep as deep 170 feet,” says Kenli Ordonez, 36, who spent four years fishing on Honduran vessels.
The divers sleeping quarters are stacked above the deck slots: 6’-6” long and 2’-6” square – just big enough to fit into. The cayuqueros sleep in hammocks underneath or wherever they can. Top heavy boats with poorly distributed cargo and people are liable to be unstable. “It is a struggle between gravity and the boat,” says Ebanks. Ebank’s owned a lobster boat “Bold Venture” since 1977 and worked it until 2014 when a 35-foot rogue wave sunk it near Falls Cape Bank. Fifty-six of his men survived, but Captain was trapped in the hull of the capsized vessel and drowned.
Lobster dive season in Honduras begins in July and runs through February. During the 10-15 dive day trips the captain is paid 30% commission from the size of the catch so they bring as many people as they possibly can. That in turn means an overloaded boat with men and equipment which brings stressful conditions for the crew and vulnerability to weather.
The divers themselves are paid 70-80 Lps. per every pound of lobster, they bring in. “Out of the 20 divers you have on board maybe three can be good ones and bring lots of lobster,” says Ebanks. Divers pay the cayuceros, the owner pays the divers, the captain takes a cut and the government looks the other way. “Throughout the history of the Honduran Fishing industry proper precautions for safeguarding the lives of crew members and safety of crew has always taken a back seat,” said Muñoz.
Lobster diving is a win it all or lose it all proposition. There is no insurance available to the boat, not for the cargo, not for the divers. There is a way to make some serious money for some and decent money for others, but when things go wrong the price paid is catastrophic.
The lobster industry is cutthroat and those looking for government help go disappointed. “Before there was much product, and few people,” says Ordonez. Many people living in Gracias a Dios feel exploited and used. “Government just comes [to La Mosquitia] during election season, buys votes for 500- 1000 Lempiras and then they leave,” says Ordonez.
While Nicaraguans and Jamaicans protect their fishing water from Honduran boats, Honduran waters are not well protected and often fished by foreign vessels. The fairly abundant marine life of early 2000s is no longer, but the people desperate to risk their lives for a few hundred dollars are plenty.
There are approximately 50 lobster diving boats in Honduras. While some people end up paying $80,000 to purchase a lobster boat license in Honduras it takes Lps. 30,000 to pay for a yearly renewal, but much more is paid to a lawyer doing the paperwork. Lobster diving is good business for many and for the Honduran government. The country exported $46 million in lobster in 2018, which is nine years after it agreed to shut down the entire lobster diving industry.
In 2009 Honduras had signed a regional agreement OSP-02-2009 to phase out lobster diving by 2011. Its implementation was postponed by President Pepe Lobo, who cited negative impact on the county’s economy. While Honduran government continued to sell the lobster, fishing licenses; in 2015, five American seafood companies including Chicken of the Sea and Red Lobster signed a letter stating they would not buy Honduran lobsters because of the dive boats’ practices.
While the future of the lobster dive industry in Honduras is uncertain, some things could be done to reduce the death toll and injuries to drivers to increase marine life in Honduran waters.The Honduran Navy could better protect its marine resources from foreign vessels. Bringing the ability for individuals to sue negligent boat captains and boat owners for damages could bring some sense of reason. Requiring dive courses for lobster divers and enforcing strict dive limits should be required and supervised. One life raft should be required on board all lobster dive boats. These are just a few improvements that could bring some relief and humanity to a place that has been forgotten by most.