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Dangerous dives for Caribbean spiny lobster

ClientEarth Communications

10 July 2023

The Caribbean spiny lobster, also known as ‘the gold of the sea’, is one of the most economically important seafood species in Central America and the Caribbean. But this lucrative business means fewer and fewer lobsters, with increasingly high environmental and social costs. Any lobster found, regardless of its size, is harvested, which puts the species under constant pressure.

High pressure on the gold of the sea

The Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus or Rock Lobster), known in the region as ‘the gold of the sea’, is one of the most economically important seafood species in Central America and the Caribbean.

Nicaragua and Honduras share an important lobster fishery, upon which the livelihoods of local communities, particularly the Indigenous Miskito communities, largely depend.

In 2022, Honduras and Nicaragua exported 228.47 tonnes of lobster and sea crawfish to Europe, much of which went to Belgium, France, and Spain.

When companies buy a lobster tail, they could be paying for the overexploitation of coastal communities, the overexploitation of the resource (the lobster), and the consequent impact that the exploitation of this resource has on marine and coastal ecosystems.

Fabio Buitrago

Marine Ecology PhD Candidate

Impacts of the overexploitation of lobster on the Indigenous Miskito communities

The overexploitation of this lobster stock is undermining social sustainability in this fishery, especially within Miskito communities, the binational Indigenous Peoples who live in the border territories of Honduras and Nicaragua. In Miskito communities – especially in the Gracias a Dios Department of Honduras – the level of poverty is particularly high. As a result, lobster harvesting continues to be one of their main sources of income, despite the high social and environmental risks associated with it.

Overexploitation makes the communities that depend on that resource to survive increasingly vulnerable and increases the number of accidents that occur every year to extract this resource.

Fabio Buitrago, Marine Ecology PhD Candidate

Because of overfishing, Miskito divers, known as “buzos”, now need to remain on board local fishing boats for days and dive deeper and deeper to catch lobsters, too often with substandard diving gear and without social support or workers’ rights. This increases the risk for divers and causes a higher number of decompression accidents and deaths.

A Miskito sailboat catching lobster for self-consumption © Fabio Buitrago

Despite growing regulation, lobster diving continues

Several legislative initiatives have been introduced in Honduras and Nicaragua to put an end to lobster diving.

The practice of buceo (or diving for lobsters by buzos) has also reached international human rights courts. In 2021, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled on the precarious conditions in which Miskito were working due to the overexploitation of the stock. It urged Honduras to review its Fisheries Law to implement urgent control mechanisms for all fishing companies involved, to avoid infringing Miskito people’s rights to life, to freedom from discrimination, and to just and favourable conditions of work, among others.

European companies importing Caribbean lobster must be aware that the continued pressure on this stock may increase existing vulnerabilities in the region and the risk of abuse of Miskito divers, who depend on this species both for local consumption and as a source of income. To address this risk, it is essential for businesses sourcing lobster from this region to implement thorough traceability as a first step, and then establish due diligence processes covering the whole value chain.

As a European seafood company, if you’re trading in Caribbean spiny lobster, you are likely facing hidden risks. Avoiding causing or contributing to environmental degradation or human rights violations starts with understanding them.

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