Today is our last day in the field conducting a health assessment on the Humboldt penguins at Punta San Juan (PSJ). The weather was perfect this morning and we worked on the same beach we were at yesterday. This beach (S5) is definitely one of my favorite sites at PSJ. It’s a large beach and although the birds keep their distance from us, there are always some penguins swimming around in the crashing surf and more just hanging out on the beach. The cliffs above the beach are always alive with cormorants, terns, piqueros, and pelicans. The young cormorants we observed the other day when we worked on the cliff edge were now above us, occasionally crashing into the ocean in a less than graceful fashion as they continue to master flying. This beach also has a nice group of South American fur seals that leisurely bask on the rocks in front of us as we work.
The timing of our trip this year has coincided with a festival in Marcona to celebrate the town’s anniversary. There have been special events in town every night this week, but tonight was exceptional as there was an event to showcase PSJ. Dr. Patricia Majluf works at the Center for Environment Sustainability (CSA) at Cayetano Heredia University in Lima and has been working with conservation at PSJ for over 30 years. She is a remarkable person and has been fundamental in establishing our current projects. Patricia and two of her students, Alijandra and Santiago, came down to PSJ today to give a presentation to the people of Marcona about PSJ. As PSJ transitions from a guano reserve to a national protected reserve, Patricia has been working to increase the town’s interest and pride in the neighboring PSJ peninsula. Many of the locals have little understanding of the biodiversity at PSJ or of the importance of conservation. It can be very difficult to teach people to conserve nature, when they are struggling daily to make their own ends meet. The CSA center has many educational efforts underway at PSJ. Projects in the local schools are trying to teach children a respect for nature and conservation at an early age. Projects with local fisherman are attempting to understand how they view the protected reserve and educate them on the importance of sustainable management of natural resources, so they are available for future generations.
Conserving the Anchoveta
Tonight’s presentation in Marcona was also tied into a campaign CSA has started in Lima emphasizing the anchoveta. Peru’s enormous industrial fisheries collect an average of 8 million metric tons of anchovetas from Peruvian waters every year (during a short 60 day fishing ‘season’). The scale of this is almost impossible to imagine. Daniel had the most impactful way of explaining it me: 5% of everything fished out of all the world’s oceans is harvested in 30 days, from 1 bay in Peru, and it is all anchovetas. The troubling part of this is that the anchoveta is the base of the entire Humboldt ecosystem. Depletion of this resource impacts all the penguins, seabirds, and marine mammals. Nearly all of the anchovetas are fished for processing into fishmeal, a cheap resource that is fed to other animals raised for human consumption. This is a very poor use of the resource and the fishermen don’t receive much for their catches. The CSA campaign is attempting to change the public perception of the anchoveta. If people come to view the anchoveta as a good fish to eat (and it is very nutritious), the monetary value of the anchoveta will increase. With increased value, sustainable management of the fisheries will become more of a priority. If this campaign is successful, the species that depend on the anchoveta as a food source will benefit greatly from more sustainable management, as it will leave more fish in the ocean for them to eat.
It was very exciting to be in Marcona for the festival tonight. Many of the townspeople were interested in the presentations and loved the free anchoveta food dishes that were prepared as snacks. Hopefully some of these people will buy into the campaign and start to eat anchoveta dishes at home. We met one of Marcona’s councilmen, who is a conservation enthusiast and seemed delighted to see foreigners showing so much interest in the town and PSJ. It was also wonderful to see young children so excited and interested in the photos of wildlife at PSJ. I always feel that if you can reach children with a conservation message early in life, you can make a lifetime of difference.
Today we examined 10 penguins, bringing our final count to 90 penguins on this trip. Since we started this project in June 2007, we have now examined and collected samples from a total of 190 penguins and have identification tags placed on 368 penguins. It’s hard to believe how quickly our time in the field has gone by. We leave tomorrow morning to head back to Lima to get our samples ready for shipment back to the US. Humboldt penguins are afforded the highest level of protection under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species multinational treaty, meaning that our permit requirements for shipment are extensive.
The trip has been a great success and it has been a wonderful to see our Peruvian friends again. As we continue to build relationships and grow our programs, I feel a great sense of hope for the wildlife at PSJ. It will not be easy, but nothing worth protecting ever is. I always leave Peru with an appreciation of how far a little hard work can go. The enthusiasm that Daniel, Santiago, Alijandra, Marco, Milena, and the other CSA students have is inspiring. They are the future of their country and I know they will always fight to protect PSJ and the wildlife that calls it home.
Mike Adkesson, DVM
Veterinarian – WildCare Institute, Saint Louis Zoo