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HomeNewsArchivesLongterm Pain from Short-Term Gain: Commercial Divers Take Big Risks

Longterm Pain from Short-Term Gain: Commercial Divers Take Big Risks

Jan. 25, 2008 — St. Croix commercial fisherman Gerson Martinez, 33, is willing to take the risks that come with pushing the envelope when he dives for lobster and conch or goes gillnetting.
Martinez has had decompression sickness — also called the bends — 20 times, and was treated twice at the decompression chamber at Roy L. Schneider Hospital on St. Thomas, and twice at hospitals in Puerto Rico.
"But it's the risk you have to take," he said.
For him, Martinez said, the risk comes with not allowing enough time on the surface before returning to the deep. He takes this risk so he can rush his catch to the market and make money. Martinez carries tanks with him so he can breathe oxygen when he thinks he has the bends.
"It pushes out the nitrogen," he said.
Decompression sickness is caused by nitrogen bubbles forming in the bloodstream and tissues of the body. The bubbles occur when divers move from deep water toward the surface — where the surrounding pressure is lower — in too short a time. Depth, length of dive and number of times diving are also factors.
Symptoms include headache or dizziness, unusual tiredness or fatigue, a rash, pain in one or more joints, tingling in the arms or legs, muscular weakness, or paralysis. Less frequently, divers suffer breathing difficulties, shock, unconsciousness, or even death.
According to area decompression-chamber experts, commercial divers going down deep to bring up conch and lobster and gillnet fish are risking their lives for the catch of the day. Diver Steve Prosterman and Dr. David Weisher, who both work at the Schneider Hospital chamber, said it's mainly St. Croix fishermen who are getting into trouble.
Some divers have suffered the bends multiple times, Prosterman said.
Dire Consequences
The bends killed a commercial fisherman in 2007. The fisherman, who was in his 40s, had done four or five dives at 100 to 120 feet, far beyond the limits set by national diving organizations like the Professional Association of Diving Instructors and the National Association of Underwater Instructors, Martinez said. Other divers who weren't prudent are now confined to wheelchairs or limp, both the result of getting the bends too many times, Prosterman added.
One recent case resulted in a St. Croix man being totally paralyzed from the waist down, Weisher said.
"He's lost control of his bowels and his bladder," Weisher said.
Divers damage their bodies by doing 10 or 12 dives in a day with no surface interval and no stops as they ascend toward the surface. Weisher has seen divers do five dives a day 85 feet down, which far exceeds safety standards.
Prosterman and Weisher both said that despite their efforts to educate them to the dangers, divers continue the unsafe practices.
The Fish and Wildlife Division at the Planning and Natural Resources Department plans to begin a program to educate commercial divers about how to dive safely, said David Olsen, the division's director. Divers are aware of the limitations imposed by the dive tables, a calculator of how much time a person can dive based on how deep the diver goes, he said, but they exceed them because they need to feed their families.
No one had firm numbers on how many St. Croix commercial divers must go to St. Thomas for treatment, but Weisher said it's about one every other month. St. Croix has a total of 74 commercial fishermen who dive, Olsen said.
Many of those who get the bends are illegal immigrants hired by other divers, who do not provide instruction, Weisher said.
"They just give them a tank and a regulator," he said.
Michelle Pugh, who owns Dive Experience on St. Croix, said the divers are not getting air fills from the island's dive shops. Instead, she said, a St. Croix man operates a mobile pump station.
"They drive up like McDonald's," she said.
Those tanks receive no visual inspection to check for internal problems, one of the requirements dive-shop operators adhere to when filling tanks. The divers' other equipment is also in questionable condition, Pugh said.
"I've seen regulators covered with fish guts," she said.
Divers are forced to go deeper into the ocean than they used to because they've already cleaned out the areas in shallower waters closer to shore, Pugh said.
"It's all about money," she said.
Public Costs
The problem is costing taxpayers money because the divers usually don't have health insurance, Prosterman and Weisher said. "Thousands of dollars," Weisher said. In addition to physicians' fees and charges for decompression chambers, some patients require admission to the hospital for further treatment. The patients receive bills but often don't pay them, Weisher said.
Martinez has health insurance through Divers Alert Network, a national diving association, which costs him $68 a year. Divers need certification from a national organization like PADI or NAUI to qualify, however. Area dive shops give certification courses. Martinez doesn't know how many St. Croix divers are certified.
It also costs the government money to airlift divers from St. Croix to St. Thomas. A plane usually must be charted from Puerto Rico, which takes time. Most often it's a fixed-wing airplane that flies at higher altitudes than a helicopter — the preferred mode of transport — putting the divers at further risk. Divers need to be under compression when they fly at higher altitudes, Weisher said.
The delay in getting an airplane also delays treatment, which further complicates the case, Prosterman added.
Recreational divers also get the bends, Weisher said, but in most cases it happens when divers have dived just a bit longer than prudent or have some other illness that means they shouldn't be diving in the first place.
Prosterman and Pugh pointed out that gillnetting is illegal in the Virgin Islands, but Olsen said he hopes to change that regulation to a management plan for gillnets.
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