LIMA (Reuters) - Peru's government declared a health alert along its northern coastline on Saturday and urged residents and tourists alike 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, though 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, though 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 posted 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.
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 phenomenon.
(Reporting by Marco Aquino and Caroline Stauffer; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Sandra Maler)