El Niño may be to blame for dead fish, whales washing up on Chile's beaches

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Piles of dead whales, salmon and sardines are washing ashore in Chile as the El Niño weather phenomenon warms the normally frigid waters off the coasts of the Southern Cone nation.

Chile, with its 2,485 miles of Pacific coastline, is particularly susceptible to El Niño’s whims, and thanks to the warmer waters a “red tide” of algae has decimated much of the country’s marine life.

Chile is the world’s second-largest producer of salmon and the surge of algae has choked an estimated 40,000 tons of the fish in the Los Lagos region. The red tide also has been blamed for some 8,000 tons of sardines washing ashore at the mouth of the Queule River and the thousands of dead clams that washed up on Chiloe Island.

“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 Niño phenomenon,” the Chilean fisheries institute, IFOP, said in a statement, according to AFP.

The current El Niño “has been classed as one of the most intense in the past 65 years,” the IFOP added.

The widespread deaths of the sea life have caused authorities to band fishing in some places – temporarily putting thousands of fishermen out of work and causing unrest.

Earlier this week, fishermen staged a protest demanding the government compensate them better for lost revenues.

The fishermen blocked roads and set up flaming barricades in several cities in Chile's south on Tuesday to pressure President Michelle Bachelet to increase the $150 that they say the government has offered in compensation. They say that is not enough to cover the basic needs of their families after their livelihoods were put at risk.

About 6,500 fishermen are in line to receive payments.

Last week, Bachelet declared the southern Los Lagos area an emergency zone.

“The Chilean ocean is shifting and changing,” Sergio Palma, an oceanographer at Valparaíso Catholic University, told AFP. “There has been a series of events that indicate an El Niño which is making its presence felt in many ways.”

Scientists, however, have also warned that another factor could be contributing to the high number of seas creatures being killed in the waters off Chile.

Laura Farias, an oceanographer at University of Concepción, believes that the growth of fish farming in Chile’s southern Patagonia region is also contributing to the die-off.

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

Whatever the reason behid these mass killings, experts say that it should be a wake-up call for fisherman and researchers in the Southern Cone.

“Chile still lacks information about the sea,” said Valesca Montes, a fisheries specialist at the Chilean branch of the World Wildlife Fund. “It has to invest in oceanographic studies, so that we can predict certain events” and better prepare for climate change.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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