© FAO/Luis Antonio Rojas
Written by Virginie Matterne, FAO Communication Specialist, in collaboration with Daniela Kalikoski, FAO Fisheries Office, and Alison MacNaughton, FAO Fisheries and Social Protection Specialist.
Andrew, a 30-year-old former diver from Honduras, is now confined to a wheelchair after an incident that changed his life forever. He was once an active participant in the underwater world, diving off the coast of Gracias a Dios, an area plagued by unsafe dive fishing practices for decades. One day, while harvesting spiny lobster in the depths of the Caribbean Sea, he suffered a severe case of decompression sickness, commonly known as the "bends".
This story, while fictional, sheds light on the real-life struggles of those who brave the waters in search of a living through free dive and autonomous dive fisheries. Andrew's story is the reality of many. In Honduras and Nicaragua alone, the Pan American Health Organization (2004) estimates that approximately 4,000 indigenous Miskito divers have become disabled due to decompression sickness.
And the problem is not just specific to Honduras. Rather, it arises in many parts of the world where these practices are used, particularly in Western Central Atlantic Fishery Commission (WECAFC) member countries located in Latin America (Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua) and in the Caribbean (Belize, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, The Bahamas, Haiti, St. Lucia, Grenada, St. Vincent and The Grenadines, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda). Recognizing this, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and WECAFC jointly commissioned a study to further investigate this in 2022 "Health and safety in the dive fisheries of key species in the WECAFC region".
Exploring the vulnerabilities and safety issues faced by divers in the WECAFC region
Divers from the WECAFC region come in all profiles, nationalities, and ages. In Honduras and Nicaragua, most of an estimated total of 9,000 divers are Miskitos, an Indigenous People living along the eastern coast of the two countries. In large part, divers are male with ages ranging from 15 to 60. All face occupational health and safety issues and vulnerabilities due to their work. According to FAO (2022) some of these issues include:
- Lack of proper training, poorly maintained equipment, excessive dive time – using scuba diving and hookah techniques, and the use of alcohol and drugs are the main safety issues facing divers, all of which contribute to the risk of accidents.
- Vessel overcrowding is another major concern. It represents an obvious danger to divers, increasing the risk of accidents, shipwrecks, and loss of life. As illustrated by the tragic incident in Honduran waters in 2019, where an overcrowded lobster fishing boat overturned in bad weather and caused the death of 27 people.
- Limited access to medical care and inadequate hyperbaric treatment facilities and training on treatment for decompression sickness further exacerbate the potential damage caused by accidents. Among the specific occupational health and safety issues facing these divers are decompression sickness (DCS), which can occur when divers ascend too quickly after spending time at depth, and arterial gas embolism, which can happen when air bubbles enter the arterial bloodstream, leading to serious consequences. Injuries are also a significant concern for divers working under challenging conditions.
- Women and families are also significantly involved and impacted by the fishery and associated risks, though data on this topic is severely lacking. Due to the high number of males experiencing permanent disability and death, women often face the increased burden of caring for sick family members in addition to being responsible for supporting the family’s livelihood.
WECAFC member states are helping tackle the problem by taking measures such as phasing out autonomous diving for spiny lobster, organizing training sessions, and setting up licenses and contracts, among other measures.
However, the impact of these measures is limited because many divers do not comply with regulations and instead transition away from diving due to a combination of factors. These include a perceived lack of other options to meet the economic needs of their families, the cultural identity associated with fishing, and dive fishing in particular, and complex relationships among value chain actors (e.g., economic dependency on middlemen) (FAO, 2022). The FAO report (2022) indicates older national regulations (Nicaragua and Colombia) and a 2009 regional regulation banning dive fishing for spiny lobster (Honduras, Nicaragua, and DR), and notes that there is no regulation of dive fishing for queen conch and sea cucumber in the wider Caribbean region. Overall, the report prioritizes other measures, including improving the legal and policy framework to better recognize the risks, promoting collaboration and communication among stakeholders, awareness raising and training in safe diving practices, and creating regulations for queen conch and sea cucumber fishery to ensure decent work and safe diving, and discourage unsustainable practices.
Social Protection for Divers' Health and Safety
In light of the vulnerabilities described above, social protection has a key role to play. Social protection can protect and support divers and their families through multiple pathways.
It can play a protective role by ensuring financial support and access to adequate health services in the event of an accident. For those that suffered accidents while diving, social protection can provide them with resources (in cash or in-kind) to continue their lives and seek alternative sources of income (FAO,2015). This assistance not only eases the burden of care-taking for family members but also provides economic support to those receiving care. Notably, while most countries in the Caribbean have disablement and invalidity benefits as part of contributory social insurance packages, fishers face barriers to accessing these programs and the associated benefits.
To this end, given the lack of access to hyperbaric chambers, and shortage of health professionals trained in hyperbaric medicine, particularly in the Caribbean, FAO (2022) recommends strengthening the healthcare system through labor market interventions to better attend the needs of fishers, especially in regions close to large fishing diving areas. This would significantly improve care for divers, while also having a "promotive" social protection effect.
As defined by FAO (2015a), the promotive function of social protection aims to directly support investments in human resources. It also helps reduce liquidity constraints and income insecurity to encourage material investments in equipment and life-saving tools. For example, FAO facilitated a South-South training exchange that allowed Nicaraguan fishers to travel to Mexico to learn safer fishing practices, with a focus on lobster fishing. This initiative empowered participants to apply these practices in Nicaragua, resulting in improved livelihoods and a positive impact on the marine ecosystem (FAO, 2019).
Social protection can also have a preventive function, avoiding deeper impoverishment by strengthening resilience to shocks, such as diving accidents, and preventing loss of income and assets (FAO, 2015). Governments, academia, healthcare providers, sectoral organizations, NGOs, and community groups in diving communities could each play a role in, for example, ensuring safer practices by producing practical guides, raising awareness and training divers on safety issues, promoting positive behaviour change, and working to improve regulation of diving conditions and requirements, as recommended by FAO in its 2022 study. This could help prevent certain accidents.
Social Protection can also serve a transformative function in the lives of divers and their families by providing adequate supportive means (cash or in-kind), together with opportunities that enable them to focus their attention beyond daily survival to investing in the future (FAO, 2015). For example, promoting alternative livelihoods or investing in assistance programmes involving social work professionals who are familiar with the culture of the community or social group in question and can establish effective communication channels. Awareness-raising activities with divers could make a significant difference in people's decisions and behaviours (FAO, 2022).
Call for Action
These occupational health and safety concerns align with FAO-ILO (International Labor Organization) Decent Employment Agenda (FAO, 2015b; ILO, 2007). They are emphasized in FAO's guidelines on small-scale fisheries, which stress the importance of promoting health, safety, and social security protection for small-scale fisheries workers (FAO, 2022; FAO, 2015b). Furthermore, the safety and social protection measures being implemented also reflect the principles outlined in FAO's Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, specifically Article 8, which calls for effective management to ensure the safety of fishers and fishing vessels, as well as Articles 29 to 39 of ILO Convention C188 on Work in Fishing (FAO, 2022; FAO, 1995; ILO 2007) and more recently FAO “Reference guidelines to legislate or regulate diving in artisanal or small-scale fishing in the Latin American and Caribbean region” (2020).
Ensuring adequate occupational health and safety and decent labour conditions of divers must become a priority on the agendas of WECAFC member countries as well as countries who import products from dive fishing.
Collaborative efforts must focus on improving access to social protection programs adapted to the specific needs and realities faced by divers. More work needs to be done to ensure fishers can and do register so that they can access these vital social protection programs. By addressing these urgent concerns, we can create a safer and more sustainable environment for WECAFC divers, improving their livelihoods while preserving the invaluable marine resources on which they depend.
FAO. 1995. Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. https://www.fao.org/3/v9878e/v9878e.pdf
FAO. 2015a. The State of Food and Agriculture. https://www.fao.org/3/i4910e/i4910e.pdf
FAO. 2015b. Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries. https://www.fao.org/3/i4356en/i4356en.pdf
FAO. 2022. Western Central Atlantic Fishery Commission (WECAFC). Eleventh (Virtual) Session of the Scientific Advisory Group (Sag): Health and safety in the dive fisheries of key species in the WECAFC region. https://www.fao.org/3/cb9246en/cb9246en.pdf
FAO.2019. Safer and more sustainable lobster fishing in Nicaragua. Learning from one another – Nicaraguan and Mexican fishers come together. https://www.fao.org/fao-stories/article/en/c/1251206/
ILO. 2007. Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188). https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=1000:12100:0::NO::P12100_ILO_CODE:C188
Pan American Health Organization, Human Rights and Disabilities among Indigenous Peoples. 2004. Evidence file, folios 6357 to 6361.