Oil spill leaves Peru fishing town in dire straits

By Paula Bayarte

Ancon, Peru, Jan 27 (EFE).- For hundreds of years, the waters off this Peruvian coastal town have filled up every morning with boats, nets and fish.

But all that is visible now is the desperation and anger on the faces of fishermen who lost virtually everything when an oil spill north of Lima caused the worst ecological disaster in recent memory.

The spill occurred on Jan. 15 when freak waves from a tsunami-triggering volcanic eruption near the faraway island nation of Tonga rocked a tanker as it was unloading crude at Spanish oil company Repsol’s La Pampilla Refinery.

Around 6,000 barrels spilled and contaminated the ocean and nearby beaches.

“The impact of the spill is desolation,” the president of the Association of Artesanal Fishers of Ancon, Gregorio Pacheco, told Efe while pointing to an empty pier and unemployed fisherman, who now need “all kinds of assistance.”

Ancon is a traditional tourist destination located 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Lima whose beaches, boat excursions and culinary delights draw thousands of visitors during the January-March summer season.

But the polluted offshore waters now have left people there fearful for their livelihoods.

“Regrettably, it’s all full of oil. The boats can’t go out to fish. The daily sustenance that our colleagues take home is no longer there. And their families: What do they eat? How do they support themselves? If they get sick, what do they do? How do they pay? We want help,” Jorge Quino, a fisherman in Ancon, said through tears.

At the local pier, which no longer smells of fish, hundreds of fisherman who have been out of work for 10 days gather to express their indignation.

Their long-term prospects are also grim considering that hatchlings and eggs have disappeared from the waters of Ancon Bay, normally a spawning ground for millions of fish.

“What will we have for our children’s future? … We won’t have anything,” Pacheco said while showing Efe crude-stained ropes and lines.

Like the fishermen, many other families in towns like Ancon who make a living from the sea and tourism – ceviche restaurants, mototaxi drivers, ice-making plants and waiters who have been out of work for days – also are affected by the spill.

“This Monday we made 52 soles ($13.56), and I have six employees. This is total bankruptcy,” Vilma, a local resident and owner of a seafood restaurant on the seafront, told Efe.

She is not alone in her predicament, since all 16 restaurants on the pier that specialize in ceviche, Peru’s national dish, have now suspended operations.

“People come here to eat ceviche, and now no one comes for fear the fish is contaminated. We basically live from the three summer months, and I don’t think people will return to Ancon because they’re afraid to consume our fish,” ceviche chef Cristina Gonzalez said.

One of her peers, however, urged people to come back and gave a quality guarantee.

“I strongly encourage people to come here. We have fresh fish. You can come with all the confidence in the world. You can trust ‘La Tia Chola.’ Ancon isn’t dead,” Rosa Elvira, a ceviche chef with 55 years of experience, told Efe.

Repsol Peru said in a statement Tuesday that it is working closely with Peruvian civil society and government authorities to provide assistance to those affected by the oil spill.

It also said it will finish cleaning up the affected beaches by late February.

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