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The Hunt for Red Gold
The Hunt for Red Gold

by Mark Jacobson

On Central America's Mosquito Coast, young men plunge into the abyss with defective equipment to capture dwindling stores of lobster. A tale of U.S. appetites, human misery, and one stubborn American's crusade to bring salvation.

If Joseph Conrad had witnessed the scene, he might have set The Heart of Darkness in Central America rather than Central Africa. Scores of Miskito Indians, lobster divers -- buzos de langostas -- thronged against the 10-foot-high iron gate at the foot of the pier at Puerto Cabezas, a Nicaraguan fishing town 60 miles south of the Honduras border. Ratty bedrolls slung across their backs, many half-drunk or stoned, the buzos pushed ahead in the late afternoon sunlight, hoisting yard-long metal lobster-hunting spears called barillas over their heads like the weapons of an attacking medieval force. The descendants of indigenous tribes and escaped African slaves, and now attired in soiled T-shirts of global celebrity (Osama Bin Laden: Dead or Alive is closing in on all-time champ Air Jordan), the Miskitos were looking for a boat. They wanted to sign on with one of the dozen or so lobster-fishing vessels tied up to the rickety quarter-mile-long pier.

On the other side of the iron fence, wearing starched white shirts, holding clipboards and canvas bags filled with money, were the sacabuzos (literally, "fetch a diver"), the middlemen of the lobster trade. The sacabuzos scanned their lists and called out names. One by one, the chosen buzos were allowed to pass through the rusted gate by bored soldiers carrying AK-47s. The divers signed a sacabuzo's pad and were given 800 córdobas, about $50, their advance for the upcoming journey.

Few buzos bothered to count the money. If they'd been shorted 20 córdobas or 100, it wouldn't make much difference. During their upcoming two weeks at sea, much of it to be spent with antiquated scuba tanks strapped to their backs as they breathed through half-clogged regulators 140 feet below the surface of the hauntingly blue Caribbean, there would be little opportunity to use the cash. Besides, at close quarters on a Nicaraguan lobster-diving boat, there is every chance a buzo's advance will end up in someone else's pocket. Rather than risk it, the divers handed their small grubstake back through the iron gate to their women. Some were wives or girlfriends who needed the money to keep households functioning, however minimally, until the divers' return. But just as many of the women were prostitutes, thin and bony, come to collect for the previous night's services.

Photo of lobstersLobster fishing is a $50 million industry in Nicaragua and Honduras, by far the most lucrative business (some would say the only business) on the legendarily remote Mosquito Coast. And like any industry, it has its costs. First, as with most resources packaged as products, lobster stocks are finite. The catch has been declining since the mid-1990s as a result of overfishing, which has not only depleted the lobster population but also wrought severe damage upon seagrasses and coral reefs. The shallows, as they are called, have been fished out. Old-timers talk of days when all one had to do was wade a few feet into the water to snare a lobster. Now, three decades after the arrival of the scuba tank, divers on the Mosquito Coast typically descend to 120 feet before seeing lobsters. Every year, with more processing plants and boats in operation to meet growing demand, the divers go deeper to find the remaining lobsters.

Choose to ignore it or not, we -- the vast consumer we -- have forged a highly nuanced social contract with these men. In the case of Miskito buzos, the terms of the contract, traced in greasy streaks of drawn butter and garlic, are exercised whenever we spread a happy-face plastic bib across our chest and begin to tear into the oh-so-sweet meat of those tempting lobster tails.

Panulirus argus and Panulirus guttatus, the two main species of lobster caught in the waters off Central America, cut a far less imposing figure than the three- and four-pound, big-clawed decapods (Homarus americanus) caught by hearty New England seamen and tossed live into boiling cauldrons to be eaten by Maine tourists. Clawless and smaller, the "spiny," or "rock," Carib-bean lobster rarely finds its way to a table intact. The animal's head is almost always chopped off before it gets to look its prospective eater in the eye, leaving only the tail. The humble Central American lobster is most often sliced and diced, thrown into salads and bowls of bisque. It is also a staple on the menus of corporate "casual dining" emporiums -- Red Lobster and the like -- where the public's craving for boiled and broiled crustacean is sated within a stone's throw of the freeway exit ramp.

A Hopi Thirst
Lonesome Lady

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Mark Jacobson's books include 12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time: A Family Tale (Atlantic Monthly Press), his account of an epic journey around the world with his wife and three children.

Photos: Alex Webb

OnEarth. Fall 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council