March 30, 1998 in Nation/World

El Nino Starves Sea Lions Of The 180,000 Off Peru’s Coast Last Year, Only 30,000 Remain

Associated Press

A sickly smell of death hangs over Peru’s southern beaches, where thousands of starving sea lions have washed ashore to die. El Nino has driven away the fish they eat.

Feeble sea lions bake under the desert sun in the San Juan Nature Reserve, 310 miles south of Lima. Vultures watch patiently.

Of the 180,000 sea lions that lived on Peru’s Pacific coast before El Nino arrived late last year, only 30,000 remain, said Patricia Majluf, a biologist with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

Thousands of sea lions have migrated away from the warmer waters brought by El Nino in search of fish, so there is no firm estimate on the number of deaths.

But biologists have found 3,000 dead sea lions just in the San Juan reserve, where 9,000 to 15,000 sea lions usually live.

All sea lion pups born so far this year at the reserve have died, Majluf said. The parents take so long searching for the few remaining fish that the pups starve on the beach while they are gone.

During normal El Ninos only the pups die and the adult females survive to repopulate the coastline by the following year, she said. But the severity of this El Nino has killed an unusually large number of adult females.

Females take five years to reach reproductive age.

“Most of the dead sea lions we have found are adult females. This means that for this El Nino the probability of the population recovering rapidly is much lower,” she said.

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