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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Chile Assists Sea Lions

Air Date: Week of

Producer Bob Carty reports from the Pacific coast of Chile where El Niño has had a devastating impact on some well established marine wildlife. Marine biologists there say they're now learning to prepare for what other changes to marine life the odd weather may be bringing their way.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It ain't over till it's over. Even though El Niño of 1997-98 has already set a record in the US with the warmest and wettest January and February in 104 years, the effects of the weather phenomenon are likely to linger until at least June all over the world. The chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, James Baker, recently said El Niño was a window on the future of global warming. He called it a taste of what we might expect if the Earth warms as is now projected. It is a taste that some are finding bitter, as tornadoes in the South and floods in the West have taken lives. In Latin America the Amazon rainforest dried to a crisp and a patch of it the size of Belgium burned up. In Peru fish stocks disappeared and a lake now covers a northern desert. And as Bob Carty reports in Chile, El Niño has had a devastating impact on wildlife.

(Splashing water and children laughing)

CARTY: Halfway down the thin slice of a country called Chile, there's a little cove near the port of San Antonio. The water here is usually so cold you can't dip your toe in. But today, some neighborhood boys are swimming in the warm waves. Around the boys playing in the surf are 3 young sea lions: black and sleek and about the size of large dogs.

(Sea lions barking)

CARTY: They bark and snort and grunt and squeal, and one of them dives toward the shore, where a 5-year-old child is sitting on a rock. The sea lion pops his head up right between the child's legs.

(Splashing, the sea lion grunts, the child screams)

CARTY: The sea lion splashes away, and Manuel Hermosilla tries to calm the child. Sea lions are just curious about people, he explains, especially this sea lion.

HERMOSILLA: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: There he is, Erre- R. He was the first one freed here in the cove, so we didn't give him a number. But the letter R as in rescue. He's a king of the beach and you have to respect that.

CARTY: Manuel Hermosilla is a local businessman and a member of a wildlife rehabilitation group. He explains that unlike seals, sea lions have larger, blunt snouts and visible ears. Adults are enormous, with the males developing a ring of fat around the neck that some say looks like a lion's mane. Manuel Hermosilla says to him, they look like mermaids. It's thanks to Manuel Hermosilla and dozens of volunteers that these sea lions are alive today. Their rescue from the threat of El Niño began three months ago when these beaches reeked of death.

HERMOSILLA: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: There are always some sea lions that die. That's normal. But this year we found 115 sea lions washed up on the beaches near here. They were obviously malnourished. They had no blubber. We either found them dead or they died as we tried to rescue them.

CARTY: In the last 3 months, dead sea lions have been found all along the Pacific coast of South America. In Peru, biologists have counted at least 5,000 dead animals. Tens of thousands more may have died at sea, possibly threatening the sea lion population in this part of the world. Bernardo Reyes, the director of the Institute for Political Ecology, says the cause is clearly the El Niño phenomenon. Normally, a cold ocean current, the Humboldt current, flows from Antarctica up the coast of Chile and Peru. But in an El Niño year, the Humboldt moves further offshore, and the nutrient-rich current sinks beneath a layer of warm El Niño water.

REYES: What happens is that we have a drastic change in water temperature. And when the water warms up, that is a critical change, to change the plankton, which are the little animals that provide the food for fish. So fish starve, or they go further away from the coastal areas looking for food. And therefore, animals that prey on fish: sharks, large mammals like sea lions, like whales, like dolphins, starve.

(Crashing waves)

CARTY: Most of the sea lions that died here were only several months old. At that age they still need their mother's milk and they are inexperienced swimmers. Normally they'd be left on shore while their mothers fished in deeper water, returning to suckle their pups. But this year, the mothers did not return. By the time wildlife workers found the pups, some of them were beyond help. Veterinarian Diego Albareda conducted autopsies on the bodies.

ALBAREDA: In some animals a lot of stones; in one animal we have found 11 or 15 stones.

CARTY: That's not usual for baby --

ALBAREDA: No. In baby animals is not usually. We've seen that they ate the stone because they are hungry.

(A pup cries for food)

CARTY: Hungry like this.

(Crying continues)

CARTY: On the patio of a small nature museum in San Antonio, Jose Luis Brito is trying to feed one of the sea lion survivors. It's a 25-pound bundle of soft brown fur and limpid eyes.

(Crying continues)

BRITO: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: Baby, Baby is the name we gave him. Now he's almost 3 weeks old, but he doesn't suckle. So we have to feed him with a tube directly down to the stomach.

(Scraping sounds)

CARTY: Jose Luis Brito feeds Baby a substitute sea lion mother's milk mixed up in a metal bowl. The cuddly little animal in his arms will eventually grow into a 700-pound, 7-foot-long bull sea lion. Baby is one of 78 young sea lions that have been saved so far. When the pups were abandoned by their mothers, the strongest ones headed from the shore inland. People found them on side streets, in gardens and patios, under cars and trucks. Towns that rely heavily on fishing are not always fond of sea lions, but here hundreds of volunteers helped rescue the pups. At the museum, they pitched in to give medication, to wean the pups from artificial milk to fish, and to help them to swim a few hours a day in a shallow pool. As they grew in size and in their ability to swim and digest whole fish, the pups were returned to sea, and the sea itself is now beginning to return to normal temperatures. Jose Luis Brito maintains that they could have saved more sea lions, if they had been prepared.

BRITO: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: We did what was possible, but the authorities did not respond. Chile has 4,500 kilometers of coastline, and it doesn't yet have a center for the recuperation of marine wildlife.

(Surf and seagulls)

CARTY: Sea lions are not the only victims of this year's El Niño. Ecologist Bernardo Reyes explains that along the coast, people are finding unusual kinds of wildlife and thousands of dead pelicans and cormorants.

REYES: Marine birds feed on fish, and they are dying off. They are migrating, to fuel the migration, they can't migrate too far if they don't have food. So we also have a massive impact on bird population that will also reproduce less. They found some turtles in northern Chile that were not typical of the area, and they didn't know what to do with them because they're never seen in the area. So when the biologists came around to identify them, they discovered that they were Central American turtles, and they are coming, following the warm waters.

(Mingling, many voices and clattering sounds)

CARTY: The wider impact of El Niño can be seen here, in Santiago's fish market, where vendors clean shrimp and clams and mussels. These fish mongers say they have hardly any mackerel this year, and the prices of some shellfish are up 1,000% due to scarcity. Ecologist Bernardo Reyes.

REYES: In the fisheries sector, we expect that this year we are going to have a reduction in fish catch by about a factor of 20%. This is going to have a large impact on employment, because these employ lots of people in the fish meal operation. The recovery process in the fisheries will take at least 2, 3, to 5 years. Most people are concerned with the failures of fisheries this year, and most people are concerned with these unusual weather patterns.

(Music and weather announcer speaking in Spanish)

CARTY: On Santiago television, weather reports are somewhat reminiscent of a dentist's office. The tone is reassuring, the music syrupy. But most people aren't fooled about what could happen next.

(Music and announcer continue)

REYES: We have seen in Santiago in the past 12 months, you know, events I've never seen in my whole life. Raining in November and December, even January. Snowing, you know, in spring, things like that.

CARTY: Juan Carlos Castilla is a marine biologist with the government's Science Research Foundation. He points out that environmental assessments of El Niño tend to only account for negative impacts. As strange as the weather has been in this El Niño year, Castilla insists there are some positive benefits.

CASTILLA: We've been going through, you know, probably 6 years with no water, particularly in central and northern Chile. Chile has water now. All the dams are full, and we will have water for 5 more years--no problem at all. So that's a positive.

CARTY: El Niño may have brought an end to the drought, but environmentalists are not quick to celebrate. In Chile's fast-growing economy, as river beds dried up in recent years urban settlement moved into the lowlands. Now, homes and factories are being washed away by flash floods. And floodwaters are also carrying pesticides and mining wastes down to the sea for the first time in years. For ecologist Bernardo Reyes, there's a lesson here. Reyes contends that Chile's resource extraction economy has left the nation and especially its poor people exposed to the vagaries of unusual weather.

REYES: In the past 10 years we've had the driest spell this century and the warmest spell this century. So, global warming is having a larger impact on phenomena such as El Niño, because we are becoming much more vulnerable when temperatures go from one extreme to the other. We cannot be prepared both for very cold weather and for very hot weather, for very long prolonged drought periods. It's given us a chance to rethink how we're planning the use of our ecosystem.

(Children splashing in water, sea lions barking)

CARTY: Back at the cove near San Antonio, the sea lion named R is playing in the waves. Manuel Hermosilla walks down the beach, where he and his colleagues released 78 sea lions they were able to save this year.

HERMOSILLA: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: This is where we put them back into the sea, when they are healthy enough and can feed themselves. And maybe it was divine intervention. What happened was that the sea lions took over this beach, as if it was the place of their birth. And the first male who was released, R, he became the owner of this cove. And he's very intelligent. Every time we come to release the rehabilitated sea lions, he comes up to smell them and to receive them as part of this group. It's very good.

(Sea lions barking, children laughing and splashing)

CARTY: The El Niño effect is now subsiding in Chile. However, it could be another year before the full impact on the fishery and on the sea lion population is fully understood. Wildlife enthusiasts, like Manuel Hermosilla, say they'll be better prepared the next time an El Niño rises. But he admits that no one knows what the next time will wash up on shore. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty near San Antonio on the Pacific Coast of Chile.



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