Peru’s northern coast turned into a virtual morgue last year when fisherman began finding hundreds of dead dolphins along the shores. This year the dolphins have been replaced with dead seabirds and no one knows for sure if the two incidents are related and what is causing these mass deaths.
According to government officials the two incidents are unrelated. The dolphins had died because of a virus and the sea birds are dying because of short supply of their food – anchovies.
But even after three months of testing the dolphins, an official government report has not been submitted and some think that the reason for the mass death might be due to off shore oil exploration or use of biotoxins and pesticides that are entering the food chain.The Environment ministry says that the government started taking tab of the deaths since February at least 877 dolphins and 1500 sea birds were reported dead. The birds included brown pelicans and boobies.
The dolphins were found in the Piura and Lambayeque regions, not far from the border with Ecuador. The seabirds were found from Lambayeque to Lima.
“Never in my 40 years as a fisherman have I seen anything like this,” said Francisco Ñiquen Rentería, the president of the Association of Artisanal Fishermen in Puerto Eten, in the Lambayeque region. “Sometimes in the past, you’d randomly see a dead dolphin or a pelican, but this, what’s happening now, is really alarming.”
“It is odd indeed,” Gabriel Quijandría, the deputy environment minister, “But they are not related.”
The federal ocean institute believes that most probable reason for the dolphin deaths is the morbillivirus which causes mass deaths in marine animals. But recently officers have been less certain with this reasoning. For the seabirds the National Agricultural Health Service has suggested cause of death to be lack of anchoveta (Engraulis ringens), a Peruvian anchovy, as a result of the sudden heating of coastal waters.
The Environment ministry has denied links of the deaths with fishing, bio toxins, red tides, pesticides or bacteria and heavy metals. It said it had also ruled out any connection to offshore seismic testing by companies to locate oil and gas deposits under the seabed.
But fishermen and environmentalist think otherwise.
Meanwhile the health ministry has alerted people to avoid the shores around Lima to the north to avoid the dead animals until the cause of the deaths is known for sure.
The advisory also asked people not to consume raw seafood, an ingredient of the national favorite ceviche, and recommended that people disposing of dead marine animals wear gloves and masks. This has further raised doubts as seabirds falling out of starvation could not possibly be dangerous.
The Peruvian coast, nourished by the cold Humboldt Current is one of the most healthy marine habitats of the world. Planktons are in abundance here and thus the area is one of the largest fishery points focused on the anchoveta. It is food for dolphins, seabirds, and other sea animals.
Data from the South American institute for the study of the effect of El Niño according to the ministry show that the sea surface waters have been warmer in recent months and anchoveta prefer cold waters. They are thus diving below a depth of six or seven feets and therefore the pelicans cannot reach them.
Juan Sernaque Juárez, 34, a fisherman from the northern town of Tumbes says the deaths are due to seismic testing for oil. He added that he and fellow fishermen had gone on strike a few months back against the testing by the oil and gas companies but it harped no result. He says that now with the mass deaths it is the fishermen who are suffering the most.
In offshore seismic testing ships tow air guns that create air pressure under water producing sound waves that can help locate oil and gas depositories beneath the sea. Mr. Quijandría, the deputy environment minister says that dolphins have not shown any discomfort and damage to internal organs or ear structure with the tests.
One of the exploration companies, BPZ Energy also says that the tests have been far north from where the dolphins were found dead. They also claim that the deaths began before they started their recent survey.
Mr. Ñiquen Rentería, 57, from Puerto Eten, who fishes for small sharks and flatfish believes there have been at least 3000 dead dolphins and government estimates are very low. He also added that they were still dying although not in large numbers.
Peruvian media believes that pesticides could be poisoning the sea animals.
“It’s unbearable to walk around those areas,” Mr. Pedro Alva, president of the Regional Development Institute of the Lambayeque region said of the rapidly growing towns along the coast. “They dump both their industrial and residential wastes into the ocean without control, without consideration.”
Sophie Bertrand, a marine ecologist at the Research Institute for Development in France who is leading a research project on seabirds and sea lions in Peru believes the common factor could be the anchoveta eaten by all sea animals. Biotoxins too cannot be excluded.