A veterinarian of the National Service of Natural Protected Areas picks dead marine birds covered in oil from the sea after Repsol’s oil spill, near Isla Pescadores, February 9, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Sebastian Castaneda
Isla Pescadores, Peru: Peppered with fishing boats and thousands of hungry marine birds, from afar Peru‘s protected Isla Pescadores – Spanish for “fishermen’s island” – looks much as it always has.
But what is different now is that the boats are not fishing at the island, they are cleaning up an oil spill.
Almost a month after more than 10,000 barrels of crude spilled into the Pacific Ocean from a tanker onloading at a Repsol SA refinery near Peru‘s capital, Lima, marine birds are still dying from oil floating in the water they once dived into.
The government has banned fishing near the spill, which President Pedro Castillo has called Peru‘s worst environmental disaster in recent history. The Spanish oil company has hired professional companies and fishermen to help clean it up.
On February 9, officials collected 16 oil-covered dead birds and rescued three that were barely alive on Isla Pescadores, some 7 km off the coast of Lima province. Overall, they counted 15 oil slicks.
A five-hour trip to the island with a team from Sernanp, the agency tasked with supervising Peru‘s natural reserves, underscored the extent of the January 15 spill on Peru‘s Pacific waters.
“For some people, it’s like this has already passed but we can still see the effects,” said Giancarlo Inga Diaz, a veterinarian with Sernanp.
One of the rescued birds – a black-and-white Guanay cormorant – looked monochrome black, its white chest and belly covered in oil.
Before the spill, the island was home to 160,000 Guanay cormorants, according to Sernanp, as well as a large number of Peruvian boobys and Humboldt penguins. These birds are under threat from the oil, which is most visible on their chests and beaks.
“The problem is when they clean their feathers, they end up swallowing the oil,” said Carlos Saldana, a Sernanp official.
The oil slicks, Sernanp officials said, are no longer thick black sludge as in the first days after the spill. They are now diluted and brownish, which makes them harder to spot.
Miguel Ramirez, a fisherman working for Sernanp and making daily trips to Isla Pescadores, said they are finding more dead birds every day.
“What happens is that they get sick. It takes some time before the illness gets serious, and then they die,” said Ramirez.
Protected Isla Pescadores
The teeming colonies of coastal birds were the most important driver of Peru‘s economy during the 19th century following independence from Spain, as guano – the Quechua word for bird excrement – was prized as fertiliser.
The overexploitation of that resource prompted the creation of a national reserve spanning Peru‘s coastline to protect the guano islands and their birds, which includes Isla Pescadores.
Repsol acknowledged many marine animals are still covered in oil following the disaster.
“Remnants continue to exist, especially in hard-to-reach areas (cliffs and rocky areas), where cleaning tasks continue,” the company said in a statement to Reuters, adding it is paying a zoo to help nurture the rescued animals back to health.
Peruvian regulators say Repsol has taken too long to clean up the spill but the Spanish company says it is working as fast as possible and that it has been denied access to protected areas affected by the slick, like Isla Pescadores.
Peru‘s environment ministry did not respond to a request for comment on access to protected areas.
Repsol has said it will finish cleaning the ocean later this month and complete the entire cleanup by the end of March.
The cause of the spill, which took place as oil was being discharged from a tanker into Repsol’s La Pampilla refinery, the country’s largest, is still under investigation.
The company has blamed it on anomalous waves triggered by a volcanic eruption off the island of Tonga.
Prosecutors are looking into whether there was negligence and have barred four senior executives from leaving Peru for 18 months.
On the edge of Isla Pescadores, a fishing boat drew alongside the Sernanp vessel in the afternoon. A fisherman reported a thick slick in a nearby cove that was inaccessible due to strong currents, with at least four dead birds.
“I hope you can do something,” a fisherman said as he handed Sernanp officials a sick seabird.
(Reuters – reporting by Marcelo Rochabrun; additional reporting by Sebastian Castaneda; editing by Karishma Singh)