Of fur seals, penguins, guano, and algae

The Punta San Juan bay curves a little with a nice beach for the breeding South American fur seals and the squealing playful pups and parents. The noisy seals, the cries of kelp gulls and the circling guano birds provide a contrapuntal background to the spectacular scene in front of you. As the sun sets, the seals continue their games in the aquamarine waters and shiny black rocks, and stray Humboldt penguins clamber over the cliffside as if to watch over them.

The strip is covered with hundreds of fur seal pups and their mothers, some lying still on rocks and the sand. The males are more aggressive and keep engaging in little tiffs. In the distance there is a huge flat promontory covered entirely by guano birds or guanay cormorants as they are known, which form a thick black carpet almost hiding the colonies of seals and penguins. Inca terns fight on the rocks and red headed turkey vultures wait patiently in rows watching the fun, swooping down occasionally to check on the seals. There are about 5000 fur seals and 900 pups on the beach and 1500 sea lions. In addition, there are 20 small beach sites along the coast where fur seals can breed, according to Susana Cardenas- Alayza, field program coordinator, Project Punta San Juan.

As you leave Lima, the butter smooth highway to San Juan de Marcona opens out between undulating treeless brown hills and the sea on other side. It is an unexceptional drive with small settlements along the way and some bigger towns till you reach Nazca after eight hours or so in Ica district – once the seat of a famous civilisation. Our drive to Punta San Juan a little before sunset took us to the Marine Reserve on the edge of the cliff with a marble quarry not too far away. Though there is a wall all round to protect the Bay, the mining license has not been revoked since it was older than the Reserve itself.

Punta San Juan is one of the two marine reserves in Peru and it has the largest colony of the highly endangered Humboldt Penguins and is a breeding ground for fur seals and sea lions. There is also massive guano nesting ground. It was declared a reserve in 2009 and is also one of the 33 sites which are part of the Peruvian National Reserve of Guano Islands, Isles and Capes. The guano birds have been protected since over a 100 years and this one has about 5,00,000 birds, says Victor Adrianzen who works with the government. The guano is harvested once in seven years and island guano is considered the best. He said there were 22 colonies and the guano was also exported.

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We leave the scenic bay after sunset, with hundreds of pictures of fur seals and guano birds and the lot. The next day we met the Artisanal Fishery Community of Marcona (COPMAR) which is an organization of 16 associations of fisherfolk. According to information from the Humboldt Current Large Marine Ecosystem Project, a UNDP – Global Environment Facility(GEF) project, the group of 600 fishermen work on conservation themes and sustainable use of resources.

On another stunning beach, the Punta Blanca, famous for its rocks shaped like a huge black elephant, complete with trunk, and a massive one in the sea, like a tortoise or Tortuga, algae dries in strips and small vehicles are ready to take away the harvest. The waves heave to and fro, their edges dark with algae, but fishermen have to dive in to collect it. Manuel Milla and Washington Espinoza and others routinely extract the seaweed and market it. Espinoza, president of one of the community groups, says few use fishing vessels and mostly the algae is harvested by hand.

There is a huge impact of climate change in this area. If the temperatures rises to 20 degrees Celsius, the algae can die. El Nino this year affected 60 per cent of the produce. Earlier the entire beach could be covered with drying algae. Now it’s only small parts, he says.

Fishermen run greater risks as the currents are stronger and visibility is getting poorer while diving. The government in 2003 decided to help with livelihoods and allotted stretches of the beach to fishermen and also identify which species can best help earn a living. The fishermen live off the earnings from selling algae.

However, Graciano Crespo says the prices for algae have crashed from 1500 to 2000 nuevo sols a tonne to a mere 600 nuevo sols this year. It is in demand by the food, cosmetic and agro industries the world over, he said. El Nino also has an adverse impact on the algae and the quantities have reduced over the years. In a good season fishermen can harvest 12 to 1300 tonnes but that’s reducing over the years. China buys up most of the produce.

San Juan de Marcona is a famous coal mining town and the fishermen are keen that future generations go in for sustainable fishing or traditional occupations rather than mining. It has an interesting history of migration from the terrorist infested Ayacucho area. Now a Chinese company runs the coal plant after taking it over from the government. A number of workers were retrenched after that. There is also the issue of over- fishing and from the 1990s onwards there is a decrease in marine produce. In 2011, the fishermen decided to ban fishing for sea urchins, and it will only be lifted once there is scientific evidence that their population has increased. The bright red sea urchins have been dwindling and their colours are also fading due to the quality of the sea water, says Julio Canales who belongs to the Hijos de Jacob community of fishermen. He and Chico wear diving suits to fetch us a clutch of bright red and some fading sea urchins, and their yellow insides which are a delicacy. Accompanying us were a group of chefs from Lima, a foodie’s delight, who are trying out a new plan to source seafood directly from the fishermen. A lot of the white meat fish like sole and sea bass are under threat because they are used extensively in Peru’s national raw fish delicacy ‘ceviche’.

While sustainable fishing and protection of marine resources is one aspect, Marcona also has Peru’s first 32 MW wind farm operational since April 2014, which produces power for 30,000 homes. Though Peru is still dependent on hydro and coal for power, there is a focus on expanding renewables from the present two per cent.

While coastal Peru gets some attention, and there are projects to protect livelihoods and natural areas, the situation in its Amazonian area is fraught with conflict over natural resources and increasing concessions for mining and oil exploration. Activists who are fighting them meet with death in some cases and there is a continuing struggle for land rights for indigenous people who are living on the edge.

View original article at: Of fur seals, penguins and guano

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