By Catherine Olian, Jessica Hopper, Michelle Balani and Alissa Figueroa
UPDATED: Off the coast of Honduras, divers are dying in search of what they call "red gold." The treasure they're hunting is the lobster that ends up on many American dinner plates.
"Americans should know that every time they eat the lobster, there is a history behind that lobster," said Dr. Elmer Mejia, who has devoted his life to helping the lobster divers.
Mejia has been treating lobster divers for nearly three years at his clinic in La Ceiba, Honduras. The doctor has the only hyperbaric chamber to treat the men who come to him when they are suffering from decompression sickness, commonly called "the bends."
Thousands of men have become permanently disabled working in the unsafe and poorly regulated lobster industry in Honduras. They spend weeks at a time at sea, making as many as 16 dives a day down to depths of 120 feet. Their air tanks often don’t even have pressure gauges to warn them when their supply is running low, so the divers bolt to the surface when they suddenly have trouble breathing. The dangerous combination of staying down too long and coming up too quickly can result in serious decompression sickness and in some cases, paralysis.
"It's incredibly dangerous what they are doing. They are diving so far beyond anything that we would consider to be within acceptable limits," said Eric Douglas, who writes about diving safety and has studied the Miskito divers along with Dr. Mejia. "They have none of the basic things that divers today would consider mandatory equipment- pressure gauges, alternate air sources, even a buoyancy control vest to help them float underwater without effort."
Sometimes the men ignore their difficulty breathing in an attempt to catch one more lobster.
"They get paid by the pound, so the more lobsters they can get on every one of those dives, the more money they make. So they're going to push it for every last breath in the tank," said Douglas.
About 90 percent of their catch ends up in the United States, according to the Honduran government.
Dr Mejia works around the clock at his small clinic treating as many divers as he can. He has very little money, but he doesn’t turn any injured diver away, and what he sees is heartbreaking.
"It's very difficult when you see very young people paralyzed from the neck down below and you know that they will not improve," said Dr. Mejia.
Mejia often travels to the Miskito Coast, a remote area about 200 miles from his clinic where most of his patients live. People there have no electricity or running water. There are few other job opportunities and most families have at least one male relative who became disabled diving for lobsters to be exported to the United States.
In a dilapidated one-room house, Wilmur Mauricio Sambola lay dying. He was paralyzed from the chest down while diving for lobster and he was suffering from a severe infection caused by his illness. Mejia had treated Sambola 10 months earlier and knew that his injuries were severe, but he was still shocked to see how rapidly he had deteriorated.
"He was a very strong man, I'm really surprised at his condition at this moment," said Mejia as he leaned over the ailing man.
During his visit, there was little Mejia could do to treat the 31-year-old man except to provide him with pain medication.
Some 4,500 divers throughout the Miskito Coast have suffered from dive-related injuries like Sambola. Those lucky enough to be healed often return to diving.
"We feel very pleased when they improve very quickly at the chamber, but sometimes we are kind of scared because if they improve so quick, so fast, they will think the hyperbaric chamber makes miracles," said Mejia. "So they will go back again diving and the next time can be the last time."
They take the risk for a few hundred dollars for each two week diving trip. Only the tails of the lobsters they catch are sent to America, and there’s no way the U.S. government, or the consumer, can tell if a lobster tail was caught by a lobster diver.
"Whether they are dive caught or trap caught lobsters, you can't tell, all that we're looking at is the tail," said Agent Paul Raymond of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There are no laws in the U.S. blocking the import of lobster caught by deep sea divers like the Miskito men.
The Honduran government and regional fishing organizations want to ban lobster diving in 2013, but the divers say they can’t stop because they have no other way to feed their families.
"If we do not provide the job alternatives, stopping the diving will be like killing them," says Dr. Mejia.
There is some hope. USAID just announced that the World Bank is putting together a package of grants and loans for the lobster divers totaling about $775,000. The money is meant to help the Miskito divers develop other ways to make a living, including possibly starting a small artisanal diving industry to catch fish that live in shallow waters, where it’s safe to dive.
Editor's Note: Natalie Morales' full report, 'Lobster Trap,' airs Monday, Jan. 2, at 10 pm/9 c on Rock Center with Brian Williams.