Mass cetacean deaths off Mauritania

18th Jun 2004 NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - More than a hundred dolphins, eight marine turtles and five beaked whales have washed up dead on the windswept beaches of southern Mauritania in recent days, puzzling scientists and worrying the government.


Experts from the West African country's Institute of Oceanographic Research and Fishing visited the scene but were unable to take any samples because of the advanced state of decay of the corpses, the government said late on Thursday.

It was the third June in a row that scores of dead marine mammals had suddenly appeared along the country's coastline, but authorities voiced concern at this year's number of deaths, which included 139 dolphins.

"A special program is being drawn up and a team of specialists will be on the shore when the phenomenon is at its height to make real-time observations," the Fisheries Ministry said in a statement. It did not say when the observations would begin.

A team of scientists from Holland did laboratory tests on samples from corpses beached in the region last year but failed to find any virus responsible for killing the animals.

"Nonetheless the Dutch scientists still favor a viral infection as the explanation," the statement said.

The waters off Mauritania's barren coast are home to one of the world's largest concentrations of fish, crustaceans and molluscs, as well as hammerhead and tiger sharks, dolphins, turtles, and a dozen species of ray.

They are also home to Africa's largest marine park, a 12,000 square km (4,500 square mile) expanse of ocean which was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, in 1989.

The impoverished West African country has taken steps to protect its treasure trove of marine life. Some of its fishermen agreed a landmark deal to stop fishing shark and ray from the park earlier this year after four years of negotiation.

By Ibrahima Sylla