What’s Killing Baja’s Marine Animals?

Dead gray whales and dolphins. Corpses of sea lions, birds and sea turtles decomposing on the beach. Since the beginning of the year, the coasts of Baja California have been the scene of multiple discoveries of dead marine animals.

The latest find was reported last week by the Federal Attorney General for Environmental Protection (Profepa) near the town of San Felipe.  According to the government agency, Profepa inspectors scoured a 75-mile coastal strip after receiving a phone tip March 11. The inspection detected 55 dead dolphins and 4 sea lions, all of which were determined to have died during a span of approximately one to three weeks or more.

In an official statement, Profepa said local fishermen had reported a recent and “unusual” sighting of more than 200 apparently healthy dolphins.

No visible wounds were observed on the animal remains, and Profepa discounted fishing nets as a cause of death. Nonetheless, Profepa said it contacted the Federal Commission for Protection against Sanitary Risks in order to further probe the reasons for the mysterious deaths. In mid-January, Profepa documented 550 dead sea birds and 4 dead sea lions near San Felipe.

Another zone of mystery surrounds the Laguna Ojo de Liebre, located in the state of Baja California Sur, where 150 dead sea turtles were discovered at the end of January. About two weeks earlier, 14 lifeless gray whales (13 babies and 1 adult) and 16 dead sea turtles were found in the same area. Moreover, 17 perished sea turtles were discovered in the same place in January 2014.

Based on previous research, Mexican authorities hypothesized that sea turtles, which are protected species in Mexico, could be succumbing to hypothermia triggered by cold fronts lashing the Baja California Peninsula in the winter months. The National Commission of Protected Natural Areas blamed the whale deaths on “natural causes,” contending that lost or abandoned baby gray whales were dying from lack of nourishment.

The first gray whale census for the 2014-2015 season in Laguna Ojo de Liebre counted 402 animals, including 261 adults and 141 babies. The cetaceans migrate to Baja California from northern Pacific waters every winter. The spectacular whale migration has become  popular among international visitors, boosting the eco-tourism business.

In a highly unusual incident, a Canadian tourist from Calgary, 35-year-old Jen Karren, was killed March 11 after a small boat in which she was a passenger was struck by a breaching whale near Cabo San Lucas and the woman tossed overboard.  Two other passengers were injured, including a woman who suffered head trauma and was evacuated to a U.S. hospital.

It was unclear from press reports if the whale was a gray whale or a larger humpback whale, which also passes the winter in Mexican waters.

According to the preliminary press accounts, the boat Karren was traveling in was returning from a snorkeling adventure and not specifically engaged in whale watching, an activity which is supposedly regulated by rules spelling out the appropriate distance that must be maintained between an observing boat and a whale.

Additional Sources:  Lapolaka.com, March 14, 2015. La Jornada, March 13, 2015. TorontoSun.com/Calgary Sun, March 12, 2015. Article by Michael Platt.  Proceso/Apro, January 16, 2015.


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