Rock Center   |  January 02, 2012

Lobster Trap: Divers risk death hunting lobster

Natalie Morales investigates the brutal reality behind a culinary delicacy: lobster. In Honduras, divers are risking death and paralysis to hunt for what they call "red gold." Much of their catch ends up on American dinner plates.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: for you tonight a story about a delicacy. It's not for everyone, and not everyone can afford it, especially these days. But Americans eat a lot of lobster . In fact, the demand is so high Maine lobstermen can't supply enough of it. We import tons of it every year from Latin America . The imports do help keep prices down, but those who go down into the sea to get it pay a very high price. They're brave men trying to make a living in Honduras in a life, otherwise, of poverty. Tonight we hear their story as Natalie Morales reports on the lobster trap .

NATALIE MORALES reporting: In the warm waters off the coast of Honduras , the locals call lobster "red gold." And for good reason. Every year divers catch millions of dollars worth of lobster here. This lobster will travel from a commercial fishing boat 90 miles out at sea to a processing plant on the Honduran coast where frozen lobster tails are boxed up and shipped to ports in the United States . Most of them end up as delicious meals for American diners.

Mr. ERIC DOUGLAS: I'm fairly certain almost no one in the United States knows exactly where their lobster 's coming from. They envision it as a trap-caught lobster from Maine . If you're buying just a lobster tail, I'm sure quite a few of them are coming from right here in Honduras .

MORALES: Eric Douglas is a dive safety expert who's done studies on the lobster divers here. The lobsters they catch are cheaper than those from New England . But Americans who eat those lobsters may be shocked by the price the divers pay.

Mr. DOUGLAS: They catch a tremendous amount of lobster , but at the -- at the price of their health and their lives.

MORALES: Here's the human cost of that lobster . Thousands of men who once dove 100 feet deep all day long are now permanently disabled. Some, who are paralyzed, get around on hand-cranked carts. Others can't even leave their homes. Villages in Honduras are filled with these men, all the result of an unsafe and unregulated lobster industry.

Mr. DOUGLAS: It's incredibly dangerous what they're doing. They're poorly trained, they're poorly equipped. They have none of those basic things that we all consider just to be standard equipment.

MORALES: They're not safe down there because they dive too often, stay down too long, and go too deep, as much as 140 feet. Without pressure gauges to show how much air is left in the tank, they can't tell they're running out of air until they have trouble breathing. But they stretch it, don't they?

Mr. DOUGLAS: They stretch to it the very last breath. We've even had divers tell us that they knew they were about to run out of air, but they saw a lobster , one more, and they reached for it, you know, they tried to catch it, and then ran out of air and then had to bolt to the surface.

MORALES: And why do they push it?

Mr. DOUGLAS: They get paid by the pound. So the more lobsters they can get on every one of those dives, the more money they make.

MORALES: Almost all of the divers get some form of decompression sickness, what's commonly known as the bends. It's a potentially life-threatening condition where nitrogen bubbles form in the body due to rapid pressure changes like the divers experience under water. Without proper treatment, it can cause joint pain, trouble breathing, and permanent paralysis. You've called this "economic genocide." Those are very strong words.

Dr. ELMER MEJIA: Yes, they are. And the reason I say that is because there is an entire population dying because of lobster .

MORALES: Dr. Elmer Mejia runs the only clinic in Honduras that specializes in treating the divers . Most of his patients are impoverished Miskito Indians who live on the remote Miskito Coast . We flew there with Dr. Mejia as our guide. This is the poorest part of Honduras . The area is so undeveloped that the only way to travel to many of the villages is by boat. These isolated waterways have become a main route for cocaine smugglers, the only other major employer. The two economies are diving or drug trafficking.

Dr. MEJIA: They just have two ways to go, and neither one of them is safe.

MORALES: The landscape is beautiful here, but there are no tourists. This is -- this is another world. We got off the boat in the town of Kalkira . Many of Dr. Mejia 's patients come from here. The houses are built on stilts due to frequent flooding. Few people have electricity or running water . Hola.

Unidentified Man: Hola.

MORALES: Como estan? But most families have a relative who was injured diving for America 's dinners. This man has been disabled for 19 years. Is this how you spend your day?

Unidentified Man: Si.

MORALES: This former diver couldn't leave the house . His wheelchair broke long ago.

Mr. WILMUR MAURICIO SAMBOLA: Wilmur Mauricio Sambola.

MORALES: Inside this house this man, Wilmur Mauricio Sambola , lay dying. He was paralyzed from the chest down and infection had set in. Dr. Mejia had seen him 10 months earlier and knew that his injury was extremely severe. Even so, the doctor was shocked to see that he'd deteriorated so rapidly. How did he look when you saw him 10 months ago? How big and strong was he?

Dr. MEJIA: He was a very strong man. He was a very strong man. I'm really, really surprised at his condition at this moment.

MORALES: All Dr. Mejia could do for him was to give him pain medication and treat his sores so he'd be more comfortable. How old is he?

Dr. MEJIA: Thirty-one .

MORALES: Thirty-one years old.

Dr. MEJIA: Thirty-one .

MORALES: Does anybody in his family work to support or help?

Dr. MEJIA: No, he doesn't have any help so far.

MORALES: No help and no money coming in. There was little left in this house except the mattress on which Wilmur was lying. He died a month after our visit. From the American viewer who's watching this and they say, 'Yes, it's a terrible story. It's sad what's going on there, but it's so far away .' What do you tell them?

Dr. MEJIA: Well, it's far away , of course. But as long as they are buying the lobster , indirectly they are part of the problem instead of being part of the solution.

WILLIAMS: Well, being part of the