Peru’s government declared a health alert over the weekend on its northern coast after hundreds of pelicans and dolphins inexplicably washed ashore dead. The advisory urging people not to visit several beaches spread out across hundreds of kilometers comes while investigators are trying to determine the cause of their deaths. At last count, over 1200 pelicans have been found dead, joining the 800 deceased dolphins found along the country’s coast.
The recommendation to stay away from the beaches comes as the peak tourism season around Lima ends. The search for dead birds and the cause of their deaths includes 18 popular beaches in the Lima region. Tests on pelicans found dead 500 miles north of Lima have ruled out diseases such as influenza, but so far starvation is believed to be the main cause. Meanwhile officials believe the dolphin deaths can be attributed to a virus.
Areas in which the dead dolphins have been found are near some of the abundant fisheries in South America. Pollutants are one possibility behind the demise and are a worry for Peru’s fishermen. The consumption of dolphin meat is illegal in Peru but they commonly caught. One study has found that fishermen who eat dolphin meat have high levels of diabetes, which could be linked to the ingestion of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as the chemical PCP. Chiclayo (Peru’s fourth largest city) has witnesses hundreds of dolphin deaths, and it is also host to a large open-pit phosphate mine, the effluent of which could contribute to these animals’ demise.
This is not the first case of what scientists call unusual mortality events (UMEs) among wildlife in Peru. Hundreds of pelicans died without explanation along Peru’s northern coast in 1997. The pelican deaths were later blamed on weather changes attributed to El Niño, which caused a scarcity of anchovies, which are important to the pelicans’ diet. Meanwhile the immediate and long-term reasons behind these magnificent animals’ demise are still a mystery.