Study: Lobster chase can hike dive-death risk

Lucky lobster divers show their catch during a past mini-season at Veterans Park on Little Duck Key.
Lucky lobster divers show their catch during a past mini-season at Veterans Park on Little Duck Key.

Don’t turn diving for lobster into dying for lobster, warn experts in underwater safety.

“Do not get lobster fever,” researcher Peter Buzzacott said. “Do not forget to look at your [air] gauge. Keep an eye on your breathing gas.”

Buzzacott, director of injury monitoring and prevention for the Divers Alert Network, heads a DAN team that will be in the Florida Keys for a series of free and open presentations leading up to the 2016 lobster mini-season July 27 and 28.

The first event is at 7 p.m. today at the History of Diving Museum near mile marker 83 bayside in Islamorada. Four more presentations will be held in the Keys, along with five on the mainland. All aim to brief divers on potential hazards of lobster diving and how to avoid them.

Florida’s lobster mini-season merits special attention because it combines underwater hunting — an activity known to increasing diving risks — with what is believied to be the largest two-day recreational diving event in the world.

“I’d be shocked if there were any other diving event that had 50,000 or 60,000 people participating,” Buzzacott said earlier this week. About half of those come to the Keys for mini-season.

State officials estimate about 60 percent of the lobster hunters in mini-season plunge into Keys waters. For a few, it becomes their last dive ever.

“Hunting lobster is a strenuous sport,” Buzzacott said.

In the Keys, a grim streak of a combined 12 dive-related deaths were logged during the mini-seasons from 2005 to 2009. Recent years have been safer with no deaths in some seasons. Still, one mini-season death was logged in 2011 and another in 2013.

A DAN peer-reviewed study, “ Recreational Diving Fatalities: Harvesters vs. Non-Harvesters,” took a close look at 400 male recreational divers who died from 2004 to 2014 in the U.S. Florida and California are tops for dive fatalities.

Of the fatalities, 110 were “hunters,” which includes other types of harvesting aside from lobstering. The remaining 290 “non-hunters” were making typical open-water dives like exploring or fish-watching (training sessions and high-risk freshwater dives were excluded).

“There was no real difference in who they were demographically in terms of body size, body mass, age, years of experience or number of dives completed,” Buzzacott said.

“They weren’t all old fat guys or risk takers. Just folks,” he said. “The act of hunting was a statistically significant influence on manner of death.”

DAN’s study noted that among underwater hunters in the 10-year review period, Florida’s two-day sport lobster season accounted for 22 of 51 of all underwater- hunting deaths in the state. Physical activity is higher than on most dives, which leads to increased air consumption.

Failure to monitor the remaining air in a dive tank emerged as a big factor. Researchers followed 1,000 divers and then questioned those who came up with less than 350 PSI of air (dive crews insist divers be back on the boat with at least 500 PSI).

Hunting divers were “20 times more likely to be surprised by how little [breathing] gas they had at the end,” Buzzacott said. “It wasn’t because they went deeper or used a smaller tank. They just were not watching their gauges because they were distracted.”

DAN’s presentations to divers will focus on the need to stay focused and offer reminders about other subsea practices. “Start your dive into the current,” Buzzacott said as an example. “When it’s time to come back, you don’t want to swim into the current while lugging a bag of lobster.”

“We’ll use real-life examples of fatalities and incident reports,” he said, “and how things might have come out differently if they had avoided some bad habits.”

The DAN group also wants to get to know sport-season divers. “Learning about who is down there diving is one of the main goals of the trip,” Buzzacott said. “We want to find out who’s actually down there diving in mini-season.”

“Our goal is to touch base with 3,000 divers,” or about 10 percent of the estimated 30,000 mini-season divers in the Keys, he said. “If we can make contact with 10 percent, we’ll feel confident our message came through.”

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206