Punta San Juan: Ecological and Economic Connections

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The guano aroma was strong enough to penetrate our airways, even with the bus windows tightly shut. We stepped out onto the peninsula blanketed in white bird excrement, clinging to our clothing as a chalky residue. The view from the research base was incredible – waves breaking along the coast, washing over sea lions and Humboldt penguins. After settling down and breaking for lunch, the gang prepared for a short excursion, getting a closer look at the incredible wildlife.

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As we passed the protected area within the research base, the wind picked up immensely, and I could feel the guano settling into my hair. In the distance was a vast flock of the guano birds, and I could barely believe my eyes. I had never seen so many birds together, and it was an incredible contrast to see the black birds against the white surface of Punta San Juan. Peering over the edge of the clif, we saw fur seals, sea lions, and Humboldt penguins harmoniously coexisting. They bumbled about each other, playing on the rocks and in the surf. I thorougly appreciated the work researchers have done protecting this area, even if there was some economic factors driving the preservation.

Guano is an organic fertilizer harvested here, produced by certain birds residing on the peninsula. The Peruvian Boobie, Peruvian Pelican, and Peruvian Comoranth are three species that significantly contribute to the guano industry, and are all inhabitants here. They are viewed as the most important asset due to the economic value. Guano harvesting is important to Peru, as it is used as a fertilizer for local farmers, and politicians utilize it in order to gain popularity amongst the citizens. This resource is becoming more difficult to harvest due to environmental changes and a diminishing work force.

Environmental changes have contributed to the decline in bird populations, and these are endangered species. In addition to this, when workers come to the reserve in order to harvest the fertilizer, there can be much habitat disturbance. This causes the birds to relocate, and they may never return to the site, even in future years. This causes an issue as it reduces the already small area in which they can nest. Harvesting guano is a labor intensive job, and fewer people find it to be a desireable option for income. There are health hazards associate with this as well, for breathing in the guano for extended periods of time can adverse affects on the lungs. But this relationship between the guano industry and ecology of Punta San Juan is the reason for its success as a wildlife reserve.

Guano can only be harvested as long as there is guano being produced. Therefore, there must be communication between the economist and ecologist in order to ensure the continued success of the wildlife as well as successful job opportunities. Hopefully this communication can be extended to the Chesapeake, and a balance can be found between saving the oyster and saving the watermen culture.

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