LIMA (Reuters) - Peru's government declared a health alert along its northern coastline on Saturday and urged residents and tourists to stay away from long stretches of beach, as it investigates the unexplained deaths of hundreds of dolphins and pelicans.
At least 1,200 birds, mostly pelicans, washed up dead along a stretch of Peru's northern Pacific coastline in recent weeks, health officials said, after an estimated 800 dolphins died in the same area in recent months.
The Health Ministry recommended staying away from beaches, although it stopped short of a ban, and called on health officials to use gloves, masks and other protective gear when collecting dead birds.
The peak tourism season around Lima's beaches is over, although many surfers are still venturing into the waters near the capital.
The Agriculture Ministry said preliminary tests on some dead pelicans pointed to malnourishment. Oscar Dominguez, head of the ministry's health department, said experts had ruled out bird flu.
"The Health Ministry ... calls on the population to abstain from going to the beaches until the health alert is lifted," the ministry said in a statement on its website, along with a photograph of a dead pelican.
The ministry said officials had so far checked 18 beaches in and around Lima for dead birds, but gave no details on any findings.
"We're starting from the hypothesis that it's because the birds are young and unable to find enough food for themselves, and also because the sea temperature has risen and anchovies have moved elsewhere," said Deputy Agriculture Minister Juan Rheineck.
A mass pelican death along Peru's northern coast in 1997 was blamed at the time on a shortage of feeder anchovies due to the El Nino weather phenomenon.
Some were undeterred by the mysterious deaths.
"We eat fresh fish on the quay of Chorrillos every day, and no fisherman has died yet, so don't worry, it's nothing," said Gloria Rivera, a seafood restaurant owner.
Reporting by Marco Aquino, Caroline Stauffer and Reuters TV; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Sandra Maler