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Protecting penguins and preserving heritage in Peru

July 2, 2020

The Andes mountains, the Amazon rainforest, a rugged coastline: Peru has it all. About 80% of the planet’s ecosystems can be found in South American’s third-largest country. Its unique geography contributes to enormous biodiversity and productivity, both in and on its islands.

Peru’s coastal waters are special because two ocean currents come together there. The cold Humboldt Current (also called the Peru Current) comes up from Chile in the south, while the warm South Equatorial “El Niño” Current comes down from the north, passing the Galapagos Islands on its way. Where they meet, there is a vast upwelling of cold, deep water. That brings an enormous amount of plankton to the surface – and feeds a wide array of marine species.

Peru’s islands have no human settlements, but are home to myriad birds and mammals, including penguins, gulls, vultures, and sea lions. They are also culturally and economically important, especially to small coastal communities. Some of the local fish, like anchovies, sardines, hake, and bonito, have high commercial value. Unfortunately, the large-scale development of these fisheries – and extraction of other resources on the islands, like guano produced by seabirds – often come at the expense of environmental protection and local communities.

Seacology in Peru

Enrique Michaud has been Seacology’s field representative in Peru for nearly five years. He’s a veterinarian and university professor who is passionate about indigenous knowledge, sustainable development for rural communities, conservation, and adaptation to climate change. While his other work mainly focuses on inland habitats and communities, he says his role in Seacology keeps him connected to the ocean, his favorite aspect of the job.

Working with Seacology, Enrique has facilitated two island projects in Peru, focused on environmental education, ecotourism, and protecting traditional cultural practices.

At Foca Island, Seacology worked with the coastal fishing community of La Islilla. Many of the fishermen there use traditional, sustainable fishing methods, which have long provided for the needs of their families. But large vessels from outside the area were catching huge quantities of fish, leaving little for the locals.

In 2016, the community created a marine protected area around the island that allows only local, artisanal fishing. Enrique helped forge an agreement among locals and multiple government agencies, helping empower the fishermen to protect the area. In support of this effort, Seacology funded an interpretive center in La Islilla to educate the hundreds of tourists who visit the area each month.

With the fishing restrictions, the area is teeming with fish–which provide not only livelihoods for the village fishers, but food for the fur seals, sea lions, penguins and many other animals that call the island home.

On the north coast, in the Tumbes River delta, the coastal resort town of Puerto Pizarro is a growing destination for ecotourism. People come for its dense mangrove forests and easy-to-spot wildlife. Community members decided to protect mangrove-ringed Whalebone and Love Islands, just offshore. In exchange, Seacology funded repairs to an interpretive center, development of a trail on Love Island, a garbage-collection system to help cope with the impact of the some 100,000 annual visitors, and mangrove reforestation on the islands. These improvements support sustainable employment for workers at the center, guides for mangrove tours, and other local residents.

Many of the fishermen near Foca Island use traditional fishing methods.

A Seacology group visited La Islilla to dedicate the interpretive center.

Enrique Michaud visits the mangroves at Whalebone and Love Islands.

Boat tours of the nearly mangroves depart from Puerto Pizarro.

Protecting islands, protecting cultural heritage

Enrique believes that Peru’s government has historically not given high enough priority to protecting Peru’s islands. By giving islands a greater prominence, we  hope to help bring the nearby communities and their traditional knowledge to the table for policy-making.

Globalization often leaves behind traditional activities and cultural heritage, Enrique says. Many young Peruvians in coastal villages don’t want to be artisanal fishermen. By supporting this aspect of Peru’s cultural heritage, we hope we can add value back to these activities–and help ensure the survival of the region’s ecosystems and cultures.

“To have an institution like Seacology that is coming to them, saying ‘you have something very important here’ makes them very proud,” Enrique explains. “They feel like they’re taken into account. They are the main actors.”

Peru's abundant fisheries provide food for many bird species, as well as coastal people.

Our project near Puerto Pizarro funded reforestation of the area's mangroves.