Experts Blame El Niño For Dead Sea Creatures on Chile’s Beaches

Published: May 5 2016 12:00 AM EDT
By Ada Carr

The beautiful beaches of Chile have long been a draw for tourists, but the dead whales, salmon, sardines and clams washing up on the shores lately have made them a lot less picturesque, and scientists believe El Niño is to blame.

“We think that a common factor in the deaths of creatures in southern Chile, in the salmon farms and in fish off the coast is the El Nino phenomenon,” experts at the Instituto de Fomento Pesquero (Fisheries Development Institute) told the Agence France-Presse (AFP).

El Niño, the periodic warming of the equatorial eastern and central Pacific Ocean, can shift weather patterns over a period of months, bringing in the possibility of more sustained warm, cold, wet, or dry weather in parts of the world. This year’s El Niño has tied the record for being the strongest.

Chilean authorities believe these mass marine deaths are being caused by a red tide of algae spurred by El Niño and have banned fishing in the affected region – a rule that has left thousands of fishermen without work, AFP reports.

(MORE: Water Scarcity Due to Climate Change Will Have Severe Consequences)

Red tide, or toxic algal blooms, are a higher-than-usual concentration of the naturally-occurring, microscopic algae Karenia brevis. This type of algae produces potent and powerful brevetoxins, which have the ability to kill marine animals and harm humans.

Last year, the toxic algae was cited as the primary cause of the death of more than 300 whales off the coast of Chile’s Patagonia. It was marked as the largest whale stranding ever recorded. This grim occurrence was just the beginning.

Just this month, about 8,000 metric tons of sardines washed up at the mouth of the Oueule River and thousands of dead clams piled up on the coast of Chiloe Island in Chile, AFP also reports. Earlier this year, a surge in algae in the water choked an estimated 40,000 metric tons of salmon in the Los Lagos region to death. This is equivalent to about 12 percent of Chile’s annual production of the fish.

“We have red tides every year in southern Chile, but this time it reached further north,” marine researcher Jorge Navarro told AFP. “It affected bivalve populations (such as clams) that had never before been exposed like this [to algae].”

(MORE: Coral Deaths Threaten Coasts With Erosion, Flooding)

The marine deaths reached the shores of Santa Maria Island, where cuttlefish have washed up in the thousands. Different beaches in the center of the country had to be closed as the notorious Portuguese Man-of-War jellyfish, which are usually foreign to the area, began floating nearby.

With almost 2,500 miles of Pacific coastline, Chile is particularly vulnerable to the effects of El Niño.

However, some researchers believe there could be another factor contributing to the mass deaths of sea creatures. Oceanographer Laura Farias told AFP last year’s huge toll of whale deaths could have been caused by the “natural ecological process” because there is no “ecological, oceanographic or climatic explanation” linking the whales to the other incidents. 

She suspects the growth of fish farming in the Patagonia region is to blame for the deaths of the salmon and clams.

“There are studies indicating that in Patagonia the greater occurrence of toxic blooms could be a consequence of aqua culture,” said Farias. 

Until more information becomes available about the cause of the fish deaths, Chile has a lot of work on its hands to clean up its beaches. 

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