Illegal and unrestrained algae extraction may lead to oxygen depletion of air in Peru’s southern coast

In spite of a recently extended ban on the extraction, processing and commercialization of sea algae in Peru, the beaches of Paracas, Ica and Marcona along the southern Pacific coast continue to be stripped bare of these marine plants, harming the eco system and removing a primary source oxygen.

The story was broken in an expose in Sunday’s El Comercio and on the Sunday night TV news magazine Cuarto Poder, or “Fourth Estate.”

Machete-brandishing men, women and children — hired by mostly Chilean and Chinese companies — are illegally cutting and ripping out the marine flora from the ocean floor, or attached to rocks and island formations. And while the absence of algae has pushed fish, crustacean and other marine animals far away from the shore, local and national authorities have mostly ignored the warnings of Peruvian biologists and marine-life experts.

“Not only are algae food and a protective area and refuge for diverse species,” biologist Yuri Hooker Mantilla told El Comercio, “but microalgae (or microphytes), together with phytoplankton and the movement of waves, generate 70 percent of the oxygen breathed by humanity.”

“The microalgae that have been massively extracted from the coast of Ica used to liberate an important portion of the oxygen that then moved to the coastal cities,” added Hooker. “It’s important to say that the air we breathe in coastal cities (such as Ica, Nazca, Pisco and Marcona) comes from the (photosynthesis) carried out by these microalgae. So, its irrational exploitation not only affects marine biodiversity, but also the production of oxygen.”

The algae is consumed mainly by Asian countries and used by global industries for products such as cosmetic creams, masks and lotions; yogurt; fertilizers; fruit pies; shampoo; antacids; salad dressings; orange juice, and swimming pool filter powder.

But this not-so-easily-renewable resource also is responsible for producing much of the oxygen we breathe.

Uncontrolled and unplanned extraction in the Ica region is therefore taking its toll on the quantity and quality of oxygen supplys, contended the director of Peru’s Paracas National Park, biologist Óscar García Tello.

The coastal waters of Ica are considered among the world’s richest sources of oxygen-producing sea algae and it “helps oxygenize the planet by eliminating most of the carbon (dioxide) produced by cities and industries,” he said.

“Failing to protect (the microalgae) could convert the ocean into a great lifeless desert and this could have unpredictable consequences not only for the fishermen, but also for the coastal populations that would become exposed to severe danger caused by oxygen depletion,” Tello contended. “If we’ve already destroyed the forests, pastures and now the algae, we’re on our way toward self-destruction.”

If so-called higher plants — or land-bound plants such as trees and shrubs — are important, they are also virtually absent from the major water sources, which cover nearly three-fourths of the planet. For pure survival, humans and other living species couldn’t make it without algae and other aquatic flora.

Microscopic algae, known by scientists as “the great lung of humanity,” produce much of the oxygen that finds its way into the atmosphere to help maintain the 20 percent or so of atmospheric oxygen that land creatures, including humans, need to live. Algae are also very important ecologically because they are the beginning of the food chain for other animals.

According to Peru’s Exporters Association, or ADEX, the Andean country exported fresh, refrigerated and frozen algae for a record $8.21 million between January and September of this year, doubling the revenue of $4 million generated in the same period last year. Exports of Peruvian algae have jumped from 4,191 tons in 2001 to 10,688 tons in 2007, and a predicted 20,000 tons for this year.

The export boost, reported state news agency Andina, is rooted in the consolidation of certain markets, namely those of China, Norway, Canada, the U.S. and Germany and in the launch of new markets in Hong Kong, Mexico and El Salvador. China-bound shipments account for 82 percent of total Peruvian exports of algae, followed by France at a distant 6 percent.

Peruvian algae exports began to spike in 2004, after Chilean-owned Algas Multiexport del Perú set up shop near Ica, and started to cart out tons of algae from the Andean country to Chile, and then from Chile to Japan.

Since then, Chinese companies, such as Globe Seaweed International SAC, América-Asia Internacional Unite S.A.C. (now Algas Arequipas EIRL) and San You Service have begun to massively extract algae from Peru’s southern oceans and beaches. El Comercio reported that none of these companies appear to be operating lawfully: they have repeatedly failed to turn in trade reports requested by the Ministry of Production and are not respecting the recently issued ban on algae extraction, the newspaper reported.

During an earlier ban, declared in October then extended and amplified on Dec. 6 by Peru’s Ministry of Production, approximately 1,000 tons of algae were extracted. Neither the Port authorities, nor the police, Peru’s Ocean Institute (Imparpe) or even the Production Ministry — which established the ban — did anything to enforce it, El Comercio reported.

Though the ban is accompanied by punitive measures ranging from fines to the seizure of illegal goods, not a single extractor, transporter, transformation plant worker or shipment crew member has been fined or stopped from illegally extracting the algae from Ica’s seashores, according to the report televised Sunday on Cuarto Poder.

The Production Ministry’s regional Ica Office has pledged to inspect the region’s beaches as well as the Nazca transformation plants to make sure that the ban is effectively being respected.

But, according to Jorge Mancilla Salazar, the regional office’s director, it is impossible to say when, in the near future, the inspections will take place.

“The head office has not only reduced our budget for this year by almost 20 percent,” said Mancilla, “but also the number of inspectors.”

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