On the Road—Peru: Mysterious Deaths on the North Coast

There’s a murder mystery happening in the North of Peru that has caught the attention of even the BBC, CNN, Mother Jones and other international news agencies. It has nothing to do with van der Sloot. The victims are not young women—but rather thousands of dolphins and pelicans on the north coast, from near Chiclayo northward to Paita and beyond.

 

Since January of this year, over 900 dolphins have washed ashore, according to CNN, BBC, AP and other news agencies. However, Julia Whitty of Mother Jones reports a higher figure: over 3,000, based on the on-the-ground research of the marine environmental groups, Bluevoice.org and ORCA Peru. In a single day in late March, investigators of these two organizations found 615 dead dolphins on a 135-kilometer (84-mile) stretch of coast. The most affected species are Burmeister’s porpoises, of which only females and calves are being affected, and common dolphins (both genders, all ages).

In April, a twist was added to the mystery, when more than 4,450 pelicans also began appearing dead on the beaches, or wandering aimlessly on the strands and the highways.

 

Investigations into the causes of death have been slow, especially in the case of the dolphins. The carcasses are often too decayed to permit proper necropsies.

An offshore natural gas platform at Cabo Blanco. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Early on, government officials dismissed possible poisoning by the oil companies, which have extensively been exploiting petroleum and natural gas reserves in northern Peru. But the study of 30 dead dolphins done by marine biologist Dr. Carlos Yaipen Llanos of ORCA Peru doesn’t let the petroleum industry off the hook. He discovered broken inner ear bones and hemorrhaging of various internal organs. Both indicate “acoustic impact and decompression syndrome,” which could be caused by sonar used to find offshore wells. Houston-based BPZ Energy, which uses such technology, denies this claim.

Other possible culprits of these mass die-offs are brucella and leptospira bacteria, and morbillivirus, a viral infection similar to distemper. Peru, however, has limited access to kits to detect these diseases.

Scientists have also raised the possibility of runoff of agrochemical or heavy metals from mining—both of which have become important industries in Peru’s north. However, Raul Castillo, director of the IMARPE (Instituto del Mar del Perú, the governmental sea institute) said that two necropsies performed ruled out pesticides and such heavy metals as copper, lead and cadmium, as well as three marine biotoxins.

 

This week, governmental authorities said that the lack of food has been the cause of the pelicans’ deaths. Biologist Carlos Bocanegra, of the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo, supports this theory. His necropsies of 10 pelicans showed either empty digestive tracts or remains of fish not normally part of pelicans’ diets. Fishermen of Puerto Etén, near Chiclayo, have reported that in the past month their catches of anchoveta (anchovies) have dropped to nearly zero. This cold-water fish is the main food source of pelicans.

The cold Humboldt Current hugs South America’s coast as far north as Máncora, where it then veers westward, to the Galápagos Islands. When the sea warms, as during an El Niño event, anchovies move to deeper, colder oceans. Independent environmental scientists, however, point out that the region has been experiencing a La Niña climate system the past two years, during which seas are colder than normal, and that seas normal temperatures now are returning.

 

Could this mass murder, though, have begun months earlier and with different species? When this reporter was on the Peru’s Northern coast in October 2011, I noticed dozens of sea lion carcasses rotting on the beaches near Paita and populations of blue-footed boobies were noticeably absent. At the time, locals put the blame on fishermen, who—they said—considered both animals as thieves of their catches. A few said it was because of the oil exploration, which had skyrocketed in the past three years.

 

Because clean-up of the carcasses have been slow and the cause of death is still unknown, authorities have closed beaches along Peru’s northern coast, from Lima to the Ecuadorian border. These include popular surfing destinations Huanchaco and Máncora. Cleanup crews have been instructed to where protective clothing. If you plan on doing any surfing or sunning, check local conditions before hitting the beach.

 

Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2012 edition of  V!VA Peru. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

 

 

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