At first the pelican was standing on the beach. As I walked by it just stared. As I sat at Donde Teresa in Mancora, my hotel restaurant, I could still see it standing there. Five minutes later some dogs came close to it and started barking. Young dogs. They didn’t know any better. I chased them away. Five minutes later the pelican was dead. The sea was washing over it.
Over the next two weeks while traveling along Peru’s northern coast, before any of the news reports of mass pelican deaths, I saw them again and again in Zorritos, Mancora, Pimentel, Santa Rosa, and elsewher. There were some healthy pelicans it seemed. They would fly together over the surf or hang out near fishing piers. The healthiest I found were at Caleta el Ñuro, just south of Los Organos and Mancora, where fishermen were tossing out their leftover catch and scraps off the pier before it was packed on ice and taken away by truck to markets around the country. Hundreds of sea turtles fought for the scraps with the hundreds of pelicans here, though at many other piers the catch was lighter. La Niña has lead to warmer waters and some say the shortage of food has left the pelicans dying of starvation, though that period is in the process of returning to normal. I can’t say the dying pelicans l encountered looked starving. More sick than skinny.
Ironically I have been on assignment writing about Peruvian food, primarily seafood along the country’s northern coast, during the exact time of these mass deaths were occurring (at the time I didn’t know). So far, pelicans and dolphins have been the only casualties. Not fish. I ate lots of fish from these waters (as well as octopus, squid, clams, mussels, oysters, and ray) in the form of ceviches, sudados, caldos, tiraditos, and sashimi. As have many others. I don’t feel sick and there have been no reports of humans becoming ill from any of this. Though whatever is going on is not a positive for one of the world’s most diverse and ancient fishing grounds.
“Something is going on with the pelicans,” I pointed out to several people. No one seemed to notice or think that it was a normal occurrence at the time. There has been catastrophic issue with dolphins as well in the same region. The NGO Orca has said that beached dolphins began appearing in January and have had broken bones in their ears and some of their organs have been collapsed, suggesting that shock waves generated by the seismic tests for oil exploration may have killed, them a claim that the oil companies (obviously) and Peru’s deputy Fishery Minister Patricia Majluf have denied, stating that there was no direct evidence.
Latest counts put the number of dead pelicans at 1,200 birds. The number of dolphins that died was officially estimated at around 877, though conservation groups and fishermen have said it is much higher, possibly as many as 3,000 dolphins. The deaths might be directly connected. They might not.
Only this week has the Health Ministry recommended staying away from beaches, although it stopped short of a ban, and called on health officials to use gloves, masks and other protective gear when collecting dead birds.
“We’re starting from the hypothesis that it’s because the birds are young and unable to find enough food for themselves, and also because the sea temperature has risen and anchovies have moved elsewhere,” said Deputy Agriculture Minister Juan Rheineck.
A mass pelican death along Peru’s northern coast in 1997 was blamed at the time on a shortage of feeder anchovies due to the El Niño weather phenomenon. This incident appears to be much bigger and local fishermen are saying they have never seen anything like this in their lifetime.
That said, the Peruvian government has not said why being on the beaches could be dangerous, and only recently have they stated that the seafood in the same waters is safe to eat.
“Marine resources are fully guaranteed, so we promote their consumption and discard any speculation,” said Gabriel Quijandria, an official at the Ministry of Environment.
Yet without fully knowing what exactly is killing marine life in the north of Peru, that is a rather bold claim.
Some say the mass deaths are attributed to a type of virus, such as the morbillivirus, which has been attributed to mass dolphin deaths in the past.
Clearly, whatever it is, the northern coast of Peru is sick. It’s not getting better. It is overfished and under regulated. Mangroves are destroyed. Oil companies have free reign to do whatever they want, much like they do in the Amazon. Sometimes dolphin or seal deaths are blamed on local fishermen, who poison them to avoid the competition, though none have ever been charged with the crime. The ocean here is becoming increasingly polluted and there is little control or study about what goes on. There always seems to be a different excuse and the real blame is never pinpointed.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.