Crying Whale

Environmental groups sent out a worldwide call to save the gray whale from a Mexican salt plant. They got millions of dollars and thousands of new members. But scientists found no threat to the whales.

With that August 1999 victory over media spin to cheer it on, IFAW ramped up a boycott and disinvestment campaign against Mitsubishi.

If the controversial "unacceptable risk" newspaper ads were the turning point in this war, some say the California-based Mitsubishi boycott and disinvestment campaign was the clincher. The campaign was crafted just like a political election, using a team of seasoned Democratic political consultants from Boston, Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

IFAW had already paid for a poll which showed that Americans on the West Coast and in the Northeast were by far the most pro-animal welfare and pro-environment. And as Boston political consultant Michael Shea noted in a case study he wrote for 2000 Campaign & Elections, Inc., "Californians viewed the Gray whales as theirs."

Actor Pierce Brosnan stands on a mobile billboard promoting the International Fund for Animal Welfare campaign.
courtsey of IFAW/S. Cook
Actor Pierce Brosnan stands on a mobile billboard promoting the International Fund for Animal Welfare campaign.
NRDC consultant Mark Spalding.
Don Lewis
NRDC consultant Mark Spalding.


In this issue, four New Times writers examine the truth behind a controversial proposed salt plant near the calving lagoons of Baja and how a misguided campaign to save the whales benefited two of the world's largest environmental groups. While government and academic whale researchers struggled to raise the few hundred thousand dollars needed to investigate central problems with the grays' Arctic food supply, green groups raised and spent $15 million to fight the salt plant, even though a panel of leading whale experts found the plant would not harm the whales.

The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population, and the whale's myriad connections to human cultural conflicts are no less impressive in their scope.

In New Times' special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Siberia to Mexico to tell the complex tale of a creature whose annual migration -- at 12,000 miles round trip -- is the longest by any mammal.

Related stories:
The New Economy
The Unlikely Environmentalists

Read the entire series

Phil Giarrizzo, a Democratic campaign consultant from Sacramento, devised a plan to convince California public pension funds to disinvest in Mitsubishi. That effort was expanded to include socially conscious mutual funds. And Giarrizzo set about convincing 46 city councils and county boards of supervisors to condemn Mitsubishi.

Tom Ammiano, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was typical of political leaders who believed -- and still believe -- the whales faced grave danger.

Says Ammiano: "The environmentalists came to my office and presented a case that the whales in particular were in trouble because of the salt plant, which would interfere with breeding. There were many problems, and it certainly made sense to me. We passed a resolution urging them not to build it. It was a good resolution."

Having won over so many adults in the business and political sectors, in early 2000 NRDC prepared to dramatically increase the involvement of school children in the "Don't Buy It!" attacks on Mitsubishi. It was a tactic, concedes Linda Lopez, that "might make some people uncomfortable."

Lopez had completed a new mass mailing filled with colorful stickers so kids and schools could get involved in the boycott. "We got kids and classrooms so involved in this campaign -- the kids were just nuts about saving the whales," says Lopez. "One high school kid, one of those amazing kinds of kids, even brought in Joel to debate Mitsubishi."

But one early March day, a surprise call came to Lopez's New York office. Out of nowhere, the salt plant was being canceled. Choked up, Lopez hurriedly made arrangements to alter millions of mailers. They were stamped over with the words, "We Won!"

The Debate on Ethics

With debates heating up over global warming, energy policies and nuclear waste disposal, some argue that the public must be able to trust science for impartial assessments that are crucial to democratic decision-making.

The tactics employed in the gray whale fight raise the question of the role of scientific research in the decision-making arena. How much should public policy be shaped by the data and findings provided by research, and how much by public fears and beliefs shaped by political campaigns and the media?

Today, IFAW, NRDC and other groups are claiming threats to the health of another charismatic species, the caribou, in the pitched battle against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The caribou may indeed be in danger. But if environmentalists are seen as crassly manipulating the science that underlies such claims, their battles could begin to backfire.

Mitsubishi International vice president Jim Brumm says the world essentially accepted the "An Unacceptable Risk" claim made by scientists named in the New York Times, and the U.S. media accepted without much digging the environmental degradation accusations against ESSA.

"It makes me scared for pure science," says Brumm. "We know science isn't perfect because there are things we cannot know, but we rely on scientists to be objective. What happens when scientists lose that ability?"

Jacob Scherr, of NRDC, who has worked on environmental campaigns all over the world, says that broadly shared feelings against development should be enough to stop a project, whether scientific proofs of actual damage are available or not.

"I have no question that the technical people who did the individual studies on the salt plant were honorable men and women who did a very good job," says Scherr. "But I have never seen an environmental impact statement that did not conclude that the project should go forward. They always conclude it can be mitigated. So society has to ask the larger question, 'Yes, but do we want it?'"

That, of course, is a reasonable question to ask of "society." But Scherr, Reynolds, Payne and others inside the movement, once they agreed amongst themselves to kill the project, essentially asked the public a different question: Should the gray whale's health be jeopardized?

Ethicists and others who follow many of the raging debates over technology, the environment and development disagree on how far environmentalists should go in order to win.

William Vitek, an environmental philosopher and applied ethicist at Clarkson University in New York, says, "The public and the insiders do not benefit from hyperbole on either side, and it is unethical to knowingly distort the facts. But I actually think, though I can't support this with proof, that most corporations and most environmental groups actually believe what they are saying, so to accuse them of purposely misleading might not get to the heart of what is going on."

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