Although avian influenza only arrived in South America a little less than a year ago, in 2023 we've seen literally tens of thousands of sea lions, seals, and other marine mammals killed by H5N1 (see Avian Flu's New Normal: When the Extraordinary Becomes Ordinary).
The numbers we get are undoubtedly under counts, as there are thousands of miles of remote, and hard to access shorelines up and down the South American Continent, and many mammals likely die unnoticed at sea.
Beyond the unprecedented ecological disaster unfolding, each spillover potentially provides the virus with another opportunity to better adapt to mammals. Between wildlife infections like these, and the incursion of H5N1 into fur farms, and swine herds, the virus is getting a lot of help along its evolutionary path.
While only a small percentage of these animals are tested, strandings are up more than 100-fold since the virus arrived in late 2022, and most are assumed to have been caused by the virus.
This update posted yesterday by SERNAPESCA.(translated)
Marine animals killed by avian influenza continue to rise
Wednesday September 20, 2023
The work and monitoring of the teams of the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service (Sernapesca) in the face of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), which affects the marine animals that are under its protection, is still present throughout the country.
According to the latest report from Sernapesca, the stranding of 21,590 dead marine animals due to causes associated with this infection has been reported: 18,678 common sea lions, 2,823 Humboldt penguins, 36 chungungos, 34 spiny porpoises, 18 Chilean dolphins and 1 huillín.
Esteban Donoso, National Director (S) of Sernapesca, detailed regarding the mortalities of common sea lions, that “within the regions, the one that is leading is the Antofagasta Region with more than 8 thousand specimens, in Arica 4 thousand, in Tarapacá 2 thousand, in Atacama 2,300 and in Coquimbo a total number of one thousand dead stranded animals.”
In the case of the Antofagasta Region, although there is a decrease in the number of strandings, the phenomenon continues to exceed the figures corresponding to a normal year. “The Service is in charge of coastal monitoring, registering stranded specimens and coordinating with the municipalities of Tocopilla, Mejillones, Antofagasta and Taltal, which are responsible for the removal and final disposal of dead animals,” indicated Pilar Irribarren, Director. Regional (S) of Sernapesca Antofagasta.
To date, the number of 47 animals with positive test results for avian influenza remains, which are 36 sea lions, 4 Humboldt penguins, 2 chungungos, 2 spiny porpoises, 2 Chilean dolphins and 1 huillín.
THE EFFECTS OF THE CHILD PHENOMENON
The proximity of the warmer months, in a scenario marked by the presence of the El Niño Phenomenon, anticipates possible effects that may have a greater impact than usual on our coasts. Consequently, this also includes marine fauna that was already affected by avian influenza in the first months of the year.
"These mortalities, lately especially from July and August, do not mean that they could all be due to avian flu, because at this moment we have a phenomenon that causes the mortalities from avian flu to overlap with, very possibly, mortalities caused by the effects of the El Niño Phenomenon,” commented Donoso.
Faced with this situation, Sernapesca reaffirms the call to citizens to avoid contact with marine animals that wash up on our coasts and make the corresponding call to the telephone line 800 320 032.