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.

Even though the environmentalists won at San Ignacio, plenty is still on the line in Baja's coastal battles.

The NRDC, IFAW and Mexican environmental groups have promised residents of the sandblown Punta Abreojos fishing village, a 20-minute truck ride from the mouth of Laguna San Ignacio, that in lieu of 200 blue-collar jobs promised by the salt plant, they will jump-start sustainable industries such as oyster farms. NRDC has pledged $100,000 toward those projects, but is finding it a tough go in a region lacking paved roads, telephones, and, in many settlements, even fresh water.

President Vicente Fox, meanwhile, is pursuing an ambitious $240 million "Escalante Nautica" (Nautical Steps) plan to develop a chain of marinas all along Baja to attract American boaters. His planners want a marina near San Ignacio or Punta Abreojos. Homer Aridjis, the famed Mexican poet who was the first to decry the salt plant at San Ignacio, has called the Nautical Steps project "a monster."

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.

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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.

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Environmental reformers face a schism borne of the battle to stop the salt plant. The question is whether jobs and development should be largely discouraged in the name of protecting Baja's vast emptiness, widely seen as Mexico's last frontier.

Many activists want to see little development of sparsely populated Baja, a land dominated by rugged volcanic formations and endless desert that sees rain only a handful of times each year. Nevertheless, some regional Baja politicians want to try again to open the salt plant, citing the taxes and jobs such a facility would bring.

But the reality that the plant will not be built seems to have settled in, and the gray whales continue their migratory lives blissfully unaware of the human struggles they have inspired.

Last spring, when 1,700 mothers returned to Scammon's Lagoon, Laguna San Ignacio, and Magdalena Bay to bear their young, Americans might have been surprised by the scenes that unfolded there.

At Scammon's Lagoon in Guerrero Negro -- the town icily dismissed by poet Aridjis as a "chaotic nightmare" -- local civic leaders have continued to expand their program to protect the lagoon from environmental degradation.

The use of dune buggies and four-wheel drives is barred in the fragile dunes ecology that surrounds the coast at Scammon's. And in the lagoon itself, the number of whale-watching boats is strictly controlled at just 12 -- for an area larger than Santa Monica Bay in Southern California.

ESSA has a deep corporate interest in making sure the gray whale co-exists and thrives in the presence of its longtime salt plant -- giving ESSA both a major public relations payoff, as well as satisfying the intense personal interest ESSA leaders have developed toward "their" whales. For that reason, ESSA funds long-term research by scientists at Scammon's Lagoon.

"In Scammon's Lagoon, we are trying to determine birthrates, migration habits and many other issues that are largely unknown about the gray whale in general," says Jorge Urban, considered the top gray whale expert in Mexico. "It's too bad nobody is studying the whales in Laguna San Ignacio -- but nobody is financing that."

Marine biologist Steve Swartz, the whale expert who was on the international panel that devised the studies for the environmental impact report at Laguna San Ignacio, says, "There's a problem with not having scientists develop a baseline for the health of Laguna San Ignacio, then watching it over time -- you won't know you have a problem until it is upon you."

In spite of conventional wisdom fanned by the media, it is Laguna San Ignacio that seems to face the most potential for environmental troubles.

Overfishing in and around the lagoon has steadily reduced the abalone take by fishermen at the village of Punta Abreojos, whose fishermen were key opponents of the saltworks. Twenty years ago, the abalone season brought in 1,250 tons, and now it is down to 250. The villagers and their nets have wiped out several species of fish. Only lobster is dependably productive.

Moreover, local ignorance about the delicate sand dune and sagebrush ecosystem that surrounds the point on which Punta Abreojos is perched has led to severe degradation. The fishermen of the village use their trucks and SUVs to cut dozens of impromptu, litter-strewn roads between the town, the lagoon, the fishing launch and other settlements in the area.

The dunes ecosystem fringing the town's beach, where members of the fishermen's cooperative launch their motorized skiffs and drive their launch trucks directly over bushes and grasses, is badly damaged. If the practice is not stopped, eventually lifeless dunes will encroach around the almost treeless village.

But the worst environmental problem might be the decrepit village of Cardon, sitting on an important southwestern wetland flank of Laguna San Ignacio, a 20 minute drive from tourist "fish camps." Cardon is inhabited by illegal "pirate" fishermen who do not belong to the fishermen's cooperative that dominates civic and political life in the area.

Cardon is an ugly eruption of tiny ramshackle structures, which, like Punta Abreojos, has no fresh water. While Punta residents buy their water from the all-powerful fishermen's cooperative, which controls the town's desalinization plant, Cardon villagers pay for water delivered in 55-gallon drums by trucks that make the long drive over rough roads.

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