Lake Maracaibo an oil sacrifice zone

With 15 minor oil spills every day the ecosystem has been largely damaged by the oil fever and negligence.

Lake Maracaibo is a large brackish bay in Venezuela. It is connected to the Gulf of Venezuela and has been a Caribbean estuary that supported commercial fishery in the region. Unfortunately the area's oil deposits have become its downfall. Hundred of abandoned oil wells and pipelines result in leaks that have affected the local ecosystem.

According to a report from the oil company Petroleros de Venezuela SA mostly known as PDVSA 15 minor spills happen every day. They represent an average of 8 barrels per day and 3,000 barrels per year. Fishermen say many commercial species have declined or disappeared as a consequence of the lack of oil clean ups in the lake.

The first oil well in the region was Zumaque oil well on the east shore of the lake. It was operational since July 1914 and lead to a boom in the "black gold" industry. The region, previously rural, became an industrial complex which received dozens of transnational oil companies.

Lake Maracaibo was once one of the most productive oil fields in the world. At its best there were more than 450 active wells pumping oil to the lake's surface. Today more than 25,000 kilometers of pipeline run beneath the bay. Most are abandoned, corroded and leaky.

Success in the business made the Latin American country became the world's fifth biggest oil producer, but the impact of this development was pollution in the brackish bay's ecosystem, contamination of drinking water and as said before decline in commercial fishing.

Besides the lake, facilities of the oil industry have been abandoned. Parking lots, buildings and tanks as well as schools and social clubs are now on rundown and surrounded by uncollected trash.

A former PDVSA worker, Alfredo Borges said to Mongabay "After the stoppage in 2002, PDVSA only cared about increasing production, and maintenance was completely neglected, "and then in 2009, 76 contractor companies in charge of maintenance were forced to sell out to PDVSA.

According to the Institute for Control and Conservation of Lake Maracaibo (ICLAM), large quantities of sulfates, fluoride, nitrogen, detergent and fecal coliform have also been found in the water, prove of the constant oil spills.

The last  big oil spill happened in May 2015, according to the Venezuelan Foundation of Seismology (Funvisis) and affected more than 40 fishermen. Ana Rincón, president of Lake Maracaibo's Fishermen Association said she is disappointed by the lack of government support and  action in the oil clean up.

More so, in the past fishermen were paid about 4,500 Venezuelan Bolivars per week  to do the oil removal which was then collected by PDVSA, this helped weekly catches. Today, she says, their take rarely exceeds 660 pounds and some days the catch is even under 44 pounds. Species such as bocachico, shrimp have almost disappeared.

The presence of oil in the waters also reduces the lifespan of gear used by fishermen from years to few months. Dengue and chikungunya, transmitted by the Aedes mosquito are common around the lake as well as respiratory diseases caused by the toxic fumes emanating from the lake bottom.

Since Venezuelan economy has declined and has the highest inflation on the world, Lake Maracaibo seems to have become an oil infrastructure sacrifice zone because of negligence.

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