SANTIAGO, CHILE – Piles of dead whales, salmon and sardines blamed on the El Nino weather phenomenon have clogged Pacific beaches in Chile in recent months.
Scientists were shocked last year when more than 300 whales were found dead in isolated bays on the south coast, the first in a series of grim finds.
Earlier this year, a surge of algae in the water choked around 40,000 tonnes of salmon in the Los Lagos region, where the Andes dominate the lakes and green agricultural valleys all the way to the coast.
This represents around 12% of annual salmon production in Chile, the world’s second largest producer of fish after Norway.
This month, some 8,000 tonnes of sardines washed up at the mouth of the central Queule River while thousands of dead clams piled up on the coast of Chiloé Island.
Authorities blamed a “red tide” of algae and banned fishing in the affected region, putting thousands of fishermen out of work.
Hundreds of angry fishermen and their families have blocked the roads leading to Chiloé from the mainland with tires on fire since Monday, demanding that the government increase the monthly subsidies of $ 150 (2,241) it gave them to make in the face of an emergency.
“Who can live on 100,000 pesos?” Protest leader Zoila Bustamante said on Wednesday. “What joke!”
Although southern Chile experiences red tides every year, this year has spread further north than usual, said Jorge Navarro of the IDEAL marine institute.
“It affected populations of bivalves (like clams) that had never been exposed like this before” to algae, he said.
On the shores of Santa Maria Island, in the center of Chile’s long coastline, thousands of cuttlefish have stranded.
Meanwhile, various beaches in the center of the country have been closed, as specimens of the dreaded Portuguese Man-of-War jellyfish, normally foreign to the region, floated nearby.
Scientists largely attribute the anomalies to El Niño, a disruptive weather phenomenon that warms sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific.
With its 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) of Pacific coastline, Chile is particularly vulnerable to the effects of El Niño, which strikes every few years.
“We believe that a common factor in creature deaths in southern Chile, on salmon farms and in offshore fish is the El Niño phenomenon,” Chile’s Fisheries Institute IFOP said.
The current El Niño “has been ranked as one of the most intense of the past 65 years,” he added.
Warmer seawater can lead to more algae, which kill other species by consuming oxygen in the water or filling it with toxins.
“The Chilean ocean is moving and changing,” said Sergio Palma, oceanographer at the Catholic University of Valparaiso.
“There has been a series of events that point to an El Niño making its presence felt in so many ways.”
But scientists also suspect other causes of the massive destruction of sea creatures.
The huge toll of whales last year “could be caused by a natural ecological process” that may have nothing to do with what killed sardines and clams, said Laura Farias, oceanographer at the University of Concepcion.
“There is no ecological, oceanographic or climatic explanation” linking the whales to the other incidents, she said.
She suspects the growth of fish farming in the southern region of Chilean Patagonia is to blame for killing salmon and clams.
“There are studies indicating that in Patagonia the increased occurrence of toxic blooms could be a consequence of aquaculture.”
Various scientists have said that the El Niño current appears to be subsiding, causing the sea surface to cool slowly.
The massive destruction of marine life, however, sounded the alarm.
“Chile still lacks information on the sea,” said Valesca Montes, fisheries specialist at the Chilean branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature.
“It must invest in oceanographic studies, so that we can predict certain events” and better prepare for climate change.