Proposed New Marine Reserve System Offers Rosy Outlook for Both the Lobster and the Lobster Fisherman

With the help of a supercomputer, Smithsonian scientists figure out how to help the lobster fishery off the coast of Honduras

Caribbean spiny lobster
Caribbean spiny lobster on a sea fan off the coast of Honduras Claudio Contreras-Koob, International League of Conservation Photographers

The spiny lobster is the easiest meal to catch in the Caribbean. It can be speared, baited into traps, coaxed into a net with a stick, or even grabbed by hand.

Well-armored and reasonably camouflaged, spiny lobster don't have great instincts to escape from human predators, who have no trouble peeling away the hard shells in order to eat the prized white meat within. As skin diving gear and SCUBA equipment have become common, the lazy habits of the spiny lobster have begun to catch up with it.

In some areas of the Caribbean, entire sub-populations of spiny lobsters have been fished out of shallow, accessible waters, forcing commercial divers to shift to deeper water where they have to use SCUBA equipment.

On the Caribbean coast of Honduras, a once-rich lobster fishery has gone into steep decline. Impoverished, untrained divers risk their lives using bad equipment without pressure indicators or depth gauges. Untrained lobster divers die of the bends (an extremely painful and often deadly condition caused by the rapid expansion of nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream, resulting from a diver rising too quickly from deep water). For most of them, there is no other job available.

The local lobster population of Honduras will eventually be wiped out without major conservation efforts. 

Spiny lobster migration - La migration des langoustes

But a new study by a team of Smithsonian researchers and other collaborators might hold the key to protecting both the divers and the lobster population.

The scientists believe that they have found a way to establish a system of marine protection areas (MPA) where fishing is prohibited that will not only help the species to recover, but also actually increase the commercial catch in nearby areas.

“If we do nothing, the fishery will collapse,” says Iliana Chollett, a post-doctoral research fellow with the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, Florida, and the lead author of the study. “So the resource really needs to be carefully managed. This has happened in many other places in the Caribbean, which also becomes a social problem because the divers need to go to deeper water.”

“We're trying to protect against pushback from fishers and explain that these can provide benefits to fishing,” says Stephen Box, program coordinator for the Smithsonian Marine Conservation Program and one of the authors of the study. Box says that it's logical that lobsters moving out of the protected areas would help fisheries. “Designing a protection area to help fishing had never been done before,” he says.

Protecting spiny lobsters within the territorial waters of any single country had previously seemed impossible. This is because the life cycle of a spiny lobster includes a period of a year or more in which the creature floats in the water current as a nearly microscopic larvae.

This means that lobsters born in one country's fishing waters would typically be under a completely different jurisdiction by the time they mature.

Liana Chollett
“If we do nothing, the fishery will collapse,” says Iliana Chollett, a post-doctoral research fellow with the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, Florida, and the lead author of the study. Courtesy of Chollett

The scientists solved a seemingly intractable problem by gathering a lot of data about ocean currents from other scientists and doing a lot of very complicated math with it.

“We were contacted by this Honduran NGO and they wanted to solve this problem,” says Chollett. “People said, 'you can't do that, you need too much data, you would need a supercomputer to do this.'”

They found a supercomputer.

Chollett and Box obtained data from other scientists who had done years of fieldwork studying the types of habitat and depth in Honduran waters. They arranged the data across a huge grid representing the total lobster habitat in the Caribbean.

And they plugged all the data in to Hydra, the Smithsonian Institution's High Performance Cluster. According to Smithsonian's high performance computing web site,“Hydra is a Beowulf cluster consisting of more than 3,000 CPU cores and more than 18TB of RAM. It is connected to 190TB of high performance disk.”

The analysis using Hydra helped the researchers to come up with a sophisticated solution to solve the problem that included areas to protect and how much to protect as well as how many fishers the fishery could support. About 20 percent of the habitat needed to be protected. The protected areas would not only help the lobster to be more abundant, to grow larger and to reproduce, but as the animals moved in and out of the protected areas, they would also benefit the nearby fisheries.

“We were actually surprised by the results,” says Box. “You can manage this species at the local level and there are benefits to the locals at that scale. For a very long time in the Caribbean, people believed that lobster had such a long larval phase that there was no hope of protection locally.”

The proposed system also includes artificial habitat in shallow regions where skin divers can more safely harvest lobsters with masks and snorkels (without risking a case of the bends). In deeper waters, only traps will be allowed. The plan is to completely ban the harvest of lobsters using SCUBA gear.

“There would be more than 40 people dead every year and more than 150 people in diving accidents,” says Chollett. “This piece of research is just part of that solution. They have dive fisheries. They need an alternative.”

Coastal villages populated by the local Miskito ethnic minority are filled with living testaments to the dangers of diving without proper equipment, training or safety procedures. Many locals have been paralyzed or otherwise permanently disabled from the effects of the bends after surfacing too rapidly.

Little aid is available to the injured and there are no other jobs on the Mosquito Coast for men who can no longer walk, let alone dive again for lobsters.

“Plenty of them that are paralyzed are in Miskito now,” said one wheelchair-bound victim. “Nobody help no one. Not the boat owner nor the person who take the boat into the water.”

If the government of Honduras decides to implement the scheme suggested by the scientists (both Box and Chollett say this is likely to happen), they may already have the tools to enforce the protection of areas designated as marine protection areas.

“Every single industrial boat has to have a vessel monitoring system which is like a GPS tracker,” says Chollett. “We work with the government and have access to that data. Looking at the boat's signature you can see what they are doing. The tools are there. It is possible to enforce it.”

Honduras says Box, “is really taking leadership on solving some of these fisheries management problems that . . . other countries are not addressing.”

Smithsonian's scientists got involved through cooperation with The Center for Marine Studies, an NGO that had already been working with the Honduran government. The NGO saw that Smithsonian was uniquely able to help solve the mathematical problems with Honduran fisheries and asked for help.

“From a Smithsonian program point of view, I think it's really important that our work is translated into action on the ground,” says Box. “We're asking very academic questions but there is a very practical side to this. . . that's an important role for the Smithsonian where we have so much scientific and technical expertise to actually solve some of these big challenges.”

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