Punta San Juan: Observations of the Guano Industry

Located on the Southwestern coast of Peru, Punta San Juan is home to one of the most productive ecosystems in the world, comparable to the Amazon rainforest. It is a wildlife reserve that provides sanctuary for the Humboldt Penguin, South American Fur Seal, Sea Lions, Guanay (Guano birds), vampire bats, Egrets and Andean foxes to name a few. Aside from providing a safe haven for numerous species, San Juan is a major Guano resource reserve. Because this industry is a result of the animals living in Punta San Juan, there is a unique intersection between the local ecology and economy. This connection is also linked to the intersection of bridge and barrier.

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Packaged guano in Punta San Juan, Black patch in the top left is all Guano birds.

Punta San Juan is a headland that was artificially made into an “Island” by the construction of an exterior wall separating it from the mainland. The reason that this wall was put up was to create an enclosed area suitable for Guano birds so that money could be made from their poop. The wall is a literal barrier to the outside world to protect the reserve, but a ‘bridge’ is in place enabling people to enter for purposes (other than Guano production) like biological research, education, and ecotourism. The bridge into this other worldly place is a great thing because it allows for people to see how productive a protected ecosystem can be and the connection the ecosystem has to the local economy. Creating an ecological reserve for many species was not the goal behind the making of Punta San Juan. The headland island was made for solely economic reasons, in particular, the commodification of Guano. In short, the diverse ecology of the area was made possible through economic intents and purposes.

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Breeding beach for thousands of Fur Seals on Punta San Juan

The reason that many cold water animals like the Fur Seal and Humboldt Penguin make their way as close to the equator as Punta San Juan in the sub tropics is because of the Humboldt current. The Humboldt current is a part of the South Pacific Gyre and consists of an upwelling of water from the lower pacific near Antarctica that flows north along the South American coast. With this upwelling of extremely cold water, an incredibly rich marine food supply is made available along the entire west coast of South America. Nutrients that settle on the bottom of the ocean are brought up the water column and eaten by phytoplankton that are food for fish like the Anchoveta (Peruvian anchovies), which is a very important food source for the marine and bird species along the coast, especially in Punta San Juan. Without this upwelling, fish populations decline which leads to the decline of the many species that depend on the fish, including Guano birds.

Punta San Juan has been a large source of Guano for uses as fertilizer in Peruvian agriculture and as an export around the world since 1909. Guano is bird feces that can be harvested by the tons to be sold as a very potent and nutrient dense fertilizer. The birds that produce Guano are huge colonies of Red Eyed Cormorants, Peruvian Boobies, and Peruvian pelicans. With the decline of the fishery along the coast of South American from Overfishing and El Niño events, there is a subsequent decline in the Guano bird population, and less guano can be sustainably harvested as a result. When Guano is over harvested, the nesting grounds for the birds are disturbed which makes their lives all the more difficult. Not only are they competing with the monstrosity of industrial fishing, they are more exposed to the elements because they are unable to make adequately protective nests out of Guano. Yes, the fascinating birds use their own accumulated excrement to build their homes and raise their offspring.

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Old Guanay nests

The population of Guano birds on Punta San Juan was once around 5.6 million. Today there are only around 5 million Guano birds in all of Peru. This is the result of industrial fisheries over-harvesting to produce tons of fish meal to feed poultry and livestock. If the Anchoveta, a keystone species in the Humboldt system, was harvested only for human consumption it would actually save the fish population from major decline, and thus sustain the Guano bird populations in the region. This is because fish meal requires tons and tons of Anchoveta to produce cheaply and is then sold at very low prices (keep in mind that an Anchoveta is 4-5 inches in length and 1/10 of a pound, so 1 ton of Anchoveta is a ridiculous number of fish). Anchoveta produced for human consumption is slightly more expensive because it requires more processing and packaging to be made marketable, whereas fish meal is just millions of fish thrown into what is essentially a large blender. Over fishing of Anchoveta has detrimental effects on the ecology of coastal South America because they are food for so many animals. It also negatively impacts the Guano industry by making it unsustainable.

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A Humboldt Penguin in an artificial shelter made by the biologists at PSJ

Ecology and economy are so closely linked in Peru that if humans are inconsiderate of the ecology and make it suffer, the economy will suffer tenfold. The question for both Peru and other places struggling with resource management, like Chesapeake Bay, is this: Does economic gain outweigh the importance of conservation and preservation of the natural world? If the answer to this question is yes, then there is no hope for the future of endangered ecosystems and natural resources. If the answer is no, then what can be done to ensure the prosperity of both ecological and economical life on this planet? How can this equilibrium be achieved and sustained?

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