Thursday, December 23, 2010

A little effort goes a long way

Paracas Nacional Reserve was created on September 25, 1975, with 335 thousand hectares between the Paracas Peninsula and the tip of Morro Quernado, located at the southern end of the Independence Bay.  65% of the Reserve belongs to marine area and 35% to coastal desert.  Since 1992 it is considered as a Wetland of International Importance especially as habitat for aquatic birds by the RAMSAR convention.

RECOMMENDATIONS:  Cigars, disposable packages and plastics does not belong to this place, they must be removed and go back with you.

Always use the established trails respecting the sign, this way you will not get lost.

Leave your pet at home, so you will no disturb the wildlife at the Reserve.

Take care of the area, it is home of a great diversity of wildlife that the world want to have.”

I awaken in the tent about 6 AM and listen to the crashing of the waves, otherwise it is mostly silent.  There are dogs here, I was nearly bitten by one last night, and there is trash everywhere.  The camper who was here previously with his wife and three little children left a pile of trash on the beach, including a diaper.  Three of us decide to rise and I take a stroll around the point.  The scenery is breathtaking, with the sun rising over the mountains and the view is clear.  The fishermen are heading out in their open skiffs, simple wooden boat approximately 22 feet long with noisy two stroke outboard motors, and names indicating that they were not the first in their line like Juan Pablo III and Maria Teresa IV, and graphics depicting their prowess at fishing such as a leaping bottlenose dolphin with bared teeth and the name Maquina or Machine stenciled on the side.  The fishermen go after the anchovitas and there is a loading dock right on the point.  I find it strange that fishing is allowed in the reserve but Carlos told us yesterday that the government has caved into pressure from these men; they complain that they are being picked on because they are “poor” even though the government pays for their electricity and housing.

I decide to wander over to the $50 solas a plate restaurant that perches on a rock outcropping right next to the bay.  “La Tia Pily”, a colorful sign depicting the yellow hills and the sea sits atop a brick and glass building with a ramshackle roof of timbers and thatch, inside there is seating for about 40 people, there is a bar, and silk flowers drape from the ceiling.  I explore the perimeter of the building and as I come around the back and get my first look at waste disposal at Pampa Lachuza.  The kitchen is directly behind the restaurant overlooking the bay, and in an alcove out of site from the customers, it apparent that garbage is slung out the window to be washed away by the sea.  Several empty bottles of cleaning chemicals and plastic bag lay under the window, probably from the night before.  There are shallow tidepools in the rocks indicating that the tide comes as high as the ledge of rock under the window.  This is just the beginning of what I am about to discover. 

I feel rested somewhat, the other chicas want me to go for a swim with them but I didn’t bring a suit.  Never mind, I have athletic underwear on, which covers more than most swimsuits anyway.   Back in the day, I used to keep a suntan but I am Alaska white, nevertheless, I need this swim.  The water is chilly at first, but very pleasant and easy to get use to.  So refreshing!  The pelicans and cormorants perched on the rocks aren’t bothered by our presence, they must be habituated to humans.  I spot a clear plastic bag floating through the rocky outcroppings, plastic bags are a murder weapon to sea turtles and other animals who mistake them for jellyfish.  I decide to do something about this one, and I swim out to the rocks.   An eddy that has caught the bag and preventing it from coming ashore looks challenging but not a big deal.  As I swim back Romina, one of our group members, appears carrying her own piece of trash.  I use the bag to collect sea glass from the beach.

After drying off and having our breakfast, we proceed to the southern beach to scout for strandings.  The beach is a colorful mosaic of polished and rounded cobbles in maroon and indigo, along with millions of shells:  swimming scallops, conchs, giant scallops, tube worm tests, limpets.  Sadly, we began to find our strandings; the carcasses of male, female, and juvenile South American sea lions, those that are supposed to be protected in the reserve.  Carlos has years of experience as a veterinarian and the founder of ORCA Peru, and he was able to determine the cause of death in every case.  “That one died in agony, see how the head is twisted back and the tongue is out?”  We look down at the flattened and nearly mummified remains of a creature that once frolicked in these waves.  “The fishermen have poisoned this one, they use rat poison, and it is a very painful and slow death.”  We move on.  Several more carcasses, either rat poison, stabbing, or a combination of both.  There is also distemper, which has been showing up in pinnipeds and cetaceans worldwide.  I reflect on similar events that have happened in more “progressive” nations; not too long ago the Alaskan government had a bounty on sea lions and harbor seals, and they were slaughtered by the tens of thousands.  New Zealand has recently witnessed its own slaughter when someone visited a protected rookery and clubbed 23 fur seals to death (fur seals are diminutive in comparison to sea lions, and very afraid of humans).  In Taiji, under the pretense of a "traditional hunt", men are killing dolphins by the hundreds nearly every day.  Here in the Paracas Nacional Reserve, Carlos says,  strandings are almost always the result of human interactions.

And it’s not just the strandings that is a concern, trash litters this beach as  far as we can see.  Everywhere we look, there is garbage.  Where is it coming from?  I decide to start picking up pieces that I feel are a danger to the animals: plastic pop caps and bottles, pink plastic bags, blue plastic bags, white plastic bags, these are items that can be found at the convenience store, and I recognize these blue and pink bags from the farmers market.  Presently I dig up a large rice bag, now I have something to put the trash in.  As I work, I am conscious to keep up with the group who are still identifying the carcasses.  When I started my marine debris campaign as an undergraduate student at Sheldon Jackson college, I was often asked the question “why bother to clean it up?  It comes right back, and after all, you are just filling up the landfills”.  Since that time, we have learned that anthropogenic marine debris accumulates in the ocean, especially plastic, and that it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces.  These pieces have been found to accumulate POPs, or persistant organic pollutants.  Studies have indicated that fish in the ocean are mistaking these very small pieces of plastic for plankton, and may very well be ingesting the POPs, which in turn are eaten by larger fish, and so on.  I still can’t help but think “what am I going to do with this bag of trash when I am done?”  There are no garbage cans at Pampa Lachuza, my group is probably thinks that I need to pay attention to the carcasses on not the trash...blah blah blah my mind says but still I keep picking up trash and stuffing it in the rice bag.

Presently, Carlos announces “Well chicas, we need to head back now and break down our camp, our cab will be coming for us”.  He takes a look at my trash bag and I begin to feel self conscious, but I can’t help it.  “Chicas!” he says and turns his back to them so that they can see the writing in inglais on the back of his shirt “If we all work to together we can make the ocean a better place”.  Immediately the chicas begin picking up trash with me, two of us carry the bag and hold it open as we hoover a wide swath of beach clean of trash.  The bag is becoming heavy but we keep stuffing; we find empty bottles of outboard motor oil, bottles with pop still in them, bottles of cleaner, and endless bags.

Back at camp, one more quick swim, but I happen to notice the employees of La Tia Pily have arrived and are unloading the daily supplies.  Then I see something familiar being unloaded from the back of the owner’s vehicle.  I take the opportunity to make like a touristico to interview the owner about his menu.  He serves chicken, fish, and of course……rice.  The rice brand that he uses is identical to the one that I found on the beach, and I am sure now more than ever that this man has his employees throw the trash out the back window into the ocean.

Carlos tells me that the cab driver will not transport our garbage out with us, that we must leave it on the side of the road for the Park rangers to pick up.  Our trash from camping goes right next to my rice bag full of beach trash.  I can't help but think if it will sit there for an eternity, to be knocked over and scattered, or what.

As we pull away in the cabs, I see a woman on the beach with a garbage bag…wait, that can’t be.  Two more, no three, six altogether, all picking up trash and stuffing it in black plastic bags.  I wonder aloud, did they see us picking up trash and come out to help?  Is this just a gesture?  Obviously the fishermen and restaurant owners are pitching trash overboard, so what's the use?  Just then a garbage truck goes by.  There is a way to deal with the garbage, Carlos tells me that Peru does have landfills and garbage disposal (this I have seen in San Bartolo).  Yet, the image of plastic bags and bottles all over the beach is a global problem, one that involves wealthy corporations that are resistant to changing the way they do business.  In Peru, not even the locals drink the tap water for fear of infection, and everyone must purchase bottled water, some brands which are produced by Coca Cola.  With over 27 million people that must drink at least one bottle of water a day, you can imagine how much production is involved.  And this is the same for all countries that do not have access to clean, potable water other than from a manufacturer-if you want drinking water, you have to go to the store and pay-try to imagine what that must be like.  We all know how lucky we are in Sitka to have tap water that is clean enough to drink, and an artisan well that gives us fresh tasting, cold water; we are given a choice between purchasing bottled water or using our tap.

Our last stop of the day is in the town of Paracas, where the devastation from the 2007 quake is still evident.  Paracas is a colorful tourist town with many souvenir vendors, restaurants, and a beautiful marina with many brightly painted fishing boats.  Residents drive around in brand new cars purchased by the oil industry (that pipeline to the rainforest that I mentioned is not far from here), yet many houses are in disrepair or are uninhabitable.  We are here to survey the locals to find out if ORCA Peru should have a presence, especially as contributing educators in the schools.  We ate lunch at a small cantina and then spread out to do our survey.  Patty and I interviewed several vendors and three fishermen; all of the vendors felt that sea lions and cetaceans are on the decline and that protection and education were needed.  One young fisherman wanted to see protection for sea lions, and two elderly fishermen were hostile to the sea lions.  Yet all wanted someone to come and help educate them on ocean sustainability. 
One thing that I would like to add before closing; don't let ANYONE tell you that your actions, no matter how small they may seem, don't make a difference!  While I was picking up trash  at the reserve, and thinking my thoughts, the Park Rangers were watching me through the binoculars, effectively taking the focus off of Carlos' group who was making their assessment of the sea lion deaths (if you watched the above video you will notice that this is important).  Not only were they paying attention to me and not the ORCAS, they were admonishing their crew for the shame of allowing a tourist to pick up beach garbage-thus the reason that we saw six people cleaning the beach as we were leaving!  And lastly I would like to add that despite the deaths of the sea lions, and the endless human generated garbage on the beach,  it was apparent to me that people wanted to see change, and that the beauty of the Paracas Peninsula and Pampa Lachuza was more overpowering than the devastation-If we all work together we CAN make the ocean a better place~

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