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Who will decide the fishermen’s fate?

Every minute or so a cell phone would ring, and its owner would discretely turn away from the other men sitting around the perimeter of the room to attend to some matter of private business.

This was a meeting of representatives of an association of seafood companies and fishing boat owners in Puerto Cabezas, on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast. These are the town’s economic heavyweights, men who drive big SUVs and wear bunches of keys on their belts. They send out fleets of steel boats in pursuit of lobster, shrimp and finfish, and sell these products to distant markets in the United States and Europe.

But despite their privileged position, they still have a list of complaints: banks won’t give them credit, gasoline prices go up each Monday, and foreign fleets–with bigger boats and better equipment–are wiping out seafood stocks.

The fishermen were particularly concerned about what is happening to the lobster population, and they called on the government to do something about it. Belying the image of the fisherman as the rugged individualist, quick to bristle at any hint of governmental intervention, these local businessmen wanted more fisheries regulations and better enforcement.

"Honduras is already overfished, and it will happen here if we don't act," said Gustavo Merina, the association’s president. "If the fishing is bad, everybody suffers, even taxi drivers and shops."

The association wants a closed season on lobsters to prevent stocks from crashing. It claims that the only way members have been able to maintain production in recent years is through vastly increased fishing effort. It also wants to prohibit the harvest of lobsters with eggs and to limit the numbers of traps and divers per boat.

But even if such regulations existed, they could not be enforced, the association representatives conceded. In Puerto Cabezas, the environmental ministry pits a single inspector "against everyone," as one man put it. Any future regulations must be backed up by a well-trained cadre of enforcement officers with fast boats, and the police too, if need be.

Bad to worse. If the most powerful people in the fisheries industry are complaining, what of the weakest?

On the other side of town, another meeting about fisheries was about to get underway. Wiry, weather-beaten men in neatly pressed shirts, several with crutches, signed their names in the registry and took their seats on the unpainted benches.

These were the representatives of a union with 660 divers–divers who sign onto the rusty boats that go far offshore to the lobster grounds. They live on board, squeezed in among stacks of canoes and diving equipment. When they arrive at a reef, they paddle the canoes to likely spots and dive down in search of their quarry, for which they are paid by the kilo. Working sometimes 12 hours a day, they earn little, but risk a great deal. (For more on the hazards of diving see the link at the right, "What can be done to save the lobsters?")

All of the union members, and nearly all of the divers along the entire Atlantic Coast, are Miskito Indians. As one union official said: "Indigenous rights and fishing rights are the same thing, because the fishermen are Indians." The meeting participants spoke in Spanish, though often haltingly. "Before I speak Spanish, I think in Miskito," said one.

They had a long list of grievances: low prices for lobsters, no credit, inability to get a permit to operate larger boats (and thereby achieve independence from the large firms), scarcity of lobsters, health problems, and meager information. Unlike the big companies, the divers don’t have the Internet to learn the latest prices for lobsters and supplies, and even if they did have computers, the power supply would be too erratic to use them.

Many of the divers’ problems have their roots in ineffective public administration. Government authorities lack the resources and training to maintain infrastructure, enforce health and occupational regulations, and create new economic opportunities. Nor are the authorities able to enter into a dialogue with local groups, such as the divers union, to get their input in setting priorities and designing new programs.

A new IDB-funded initiative to strengthen regional government along Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast (see link at right) will help to give public authorities the means and skills to work with local people. While the leaders of the divers union have heard many promises in the past, they expressed cautious hope about the new program. They were at the bottom of the economic ladder, so they had nothing to lose.

They particularly needed help to level the playing field with the large seafood firms. "The companies have enriched themselves from us," said Alfredo Alvarado, the union president. "They don't recognize our rights. We are their slaves."

The union had presented the large firms with a list of 26 issues that they wanted to discuss. Alvarado produced a copy, printed with the aid of an obviously old typewriter. It painted a grim picture of a dangerous profession. Among the issues were overloading of boats (last year, two boats sank and many divers drowned); insufficient medical supplies on board; bad food; being forced to dive too deep; bad diving equipment; low prices; and lack of respect.

And finally, this poignant item: "When a diver is lost on the high seas, require the captain to look for him until he is found."

Of the 26 proposed items, the big firms only agreed to discuss five. Among them was the industry practice of deducting 5 percent of the weight of the lobsters to account for the seawater adhering to them. "This isn't right," said union officer Elvis Dublón. "It's not justified by science."

Someone brought up the issue of the health risks of diving. "I myself am paralyzed from the waist down," he said. "So am I," said another. Out of a group of 12 people, four could not walk without assistance.

By age 30, nearly all the divers in this area have either found other work, or more likely, have become crippled, or have died. Either way, there are no old divers. "We're expendable," said one union officer. "When a diver can't work any longer, the companies get another." Nor do the companies take sufficient responsibility for disabilities, he claimed. If a diver gets caisson disease, (also called "the bends"), the company will foot the bill for the decompression chamber and provide payments for 20 or 30 days–nothing more. "They don't even buy a wheelchair, or if they do, it’s in very bad condition," he said.

How many paralyzed divers are there? Hundreds, was the reply, broken men on crutches or wheelchairs, largely invisible in their homes or in the parks, unable to work and provide for their families. For many of them, it might be too late, but for others, a new regime based on effective laws, sound administration, and participation of local people could yet make a difference.

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