By Júlia Talarn Rabascall
The fishermen of Queule cove are stunned. They look over gas masks, searching for words that don't exist. The intense smell of putrefaction that emanates from the thousands of tons of sardines washed up on the beach of this town in southern Chile is unbearable.
"We have never seen anything like it," the residents of Queule, a small town located at the mouth of the river of the same name, repeat over and over again. The images of its humble cove have gone around the world after being the scene of a new massive wave related to the El Niño phenomenon.
During these last months of the southern summer, the coasts of the South American country have become a graveyard of marine species. Whales, squid, sardines and jellyfish have been swept over 5,000 kilometers of coastline leaving apocalyptic images.
El Niño, the cyclical natural phenomenon that alters the conditions of the Pacific Ocean, is the one that "could be behind some of these episodes," the Undersecretary of Fisheries and Aquaculture of Chile, Raúl Súnico, explains to Efe.
According to the authority, the presence at the surface level of bodies of water with little oxygen would be the cause of the death of the sardines, which according to estimates by the residents of the southern population would have killed 40,000 tons of this species.
The bodies of water with low oxygen content act as a barrier that the sardines cannot get around, which is why they are pushed towards the coast, where they end up dying.
Although it is a periodic phenomenon, this time the alterations caused by El Niño have been much more intense than in previous episodes and, according to reports from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), this year's phenomenon could be the most devastating in history in Latin America.
Unlike other countries, in Chile the El Niño phenomenon is added to powerful events of vertical displacement of masses of deep waters towards the surface, called upwellings.
These cold water masses from the seabed are rich in nutrients but low in oxygen content, which, added to the changes caused by El Niño, has made the varazones more “intense” in Chile than in other countries, he explains. Tunic.
At the beginning of January of this year, the inhabitants of Santa María Island, located off the coast of the Arauco province, in southern Chile, also woke up with a Dantesque vision. Thousands and thousands of giant squid lay dead on the dark sand of its beaches. Although experts have not yet been able to determine the causes of the incident, Súnico does not rule out its relationship with El Niño.
The situation was repeated in the southern regions of Los Ríos and Los Lagos, where during the summer 40,000 tons of farmed salmon died due to the flowering of a toxic microalgae that reproduced due to the high water temperatures.
With the increase in temperatures, new non-traditional species have also appeared, such as the jellyfish known as the “Portuguese frigate, which this summer invaded the beaches of the southern country,” adds Súnico.
But they have not been the only ones, because according to the authority also octopuses, hakes, palometas, albatrosses or petrels have moved in search of food to areas where their presence was not usual before.
This reason could also be behind the stranding of whales and sea lions that have been recorded this summer. "The effects of El Niño are really multiple."
The shocking stranding of 337 whales that occurred in March 2015 and was announced last December; However, it would not be directly related to the weather phenomenon, since "it was between January and March 2016 when the water temperature increases were registered and not during the previous year," oceanographer Susannah Buchan tells Efe, who stressed that this mortality “is not resolved yet”.
Finding an answer to these mysterious episodes makes it necessary, according to experts, to have permanent monitoring systems for environmental and climatic conditions in Chile, since otherwise "it is difficult to know exactly the causes of these events," says Buchan.
According to the experts, it is likely that episodes of this type will be repeated and the coasts of the southern country will once again become a cemetery of marine species whose images will move the world again. "The question is with what intensity and frequency," asks Súnico.
Photo: The Róbalo River in the Omora Ethnobotanical Park, in the city of Puerto Williams.