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.

Cardon has no sewers, no telephones, and no pollution controls. Already, children cannot swim in the shallow waters off the sandy banks of Cardon because they get hives. A local biologist says the water is being severely polluted, mostly by "fishermen gutting their catch, tossing fish heads and tails in, whatever trash they have, and letting the tide take it away."

Some resource-management and environmental practices common in the U.S. have made their way to the region, however. Raul Lopez, who fishes and also co-manages one of the lucrative whale-watching fish camps, is among the leaders who have worked hard to control their own fishing and other human activities at Laguna San Ignacio.

But the pressure for profits is strong. For example, substantially more whale-watching boats are allowed into the water of San Ignacio than are permitted at Scammon's Lagoon.

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.

Related stories:
The New Economy
The Unlikely Environmentalists

Read the entire series

San Ignacio, which is less than half the size of Scammon's Lagoon, licenses twice as many whale-watching boats, 25. This crowding occasionally causes the whale-watching boats to chase the whale mothers and babies in an eager competition to get closest.

In March, New Times witnessed frantic whale mothers forcing their 1,000-pound babies underwater as they fled again and again from callous boat operators at San Ignacio, the entire scene being cheered by hooting, life-jacketed tourists. Such terrorizing of whale pairs is not allowed at Scammon's Lagoon at Guerrero Negro.

Fishing cooperative leader Isidro Arce, who is credited with bringing many economic and resource-management reforms to the area, insists that Laguna San Ignacio protects its whales, while Guerrero Negro does not.

"Of course we are more careful here, more respectful of the whales, and much more clean," Arce says.

But Juan Bremmer, president of ESSA, has tired of such claims. Guerrero Negro is indeed a scruffy, one-horse town of 12,000. Its poorest residents live on dirt streets lined with slapdash houses and broken-down cars. But it also boasts a large middle class with neat, tree-lined streets, suburban homes, a community college and a bustling bank -- all because of the salt plant.

"We are proof that Baja can pursue modest development that does not hurt our whales," Bremmer insists. Federal officials who want to build numerous marinas along the Baja coast are making the same argument.

The only way to know if modest development of Baja will hurt the gray whale is to understand the species itself. Today, a robust population of 26,000 migrates along North America's Pacific coast. Their population was made nearly extinct before whaling was belatedly banned in the U.S. in the 1970s. (Ferociously anti-whaling Mexico banned whaling in the 1960s.)

Whale scientists who were stung by Roger Payne's and Mark Spalding's criticisms of being sellouts for doing research funded by ESSA point out that NRDC is reaping millions of dollars from paid membership rolls fattened to 500,000, largely because of public interest in "saving" the gray whale in Baja California. But despite its huge new membership and the permanently fatter budget those members create, NRDC has not invested in substantive study of the gray whale.

Joel Reynolds points out, "We're not research groups, we are environmental advocacy groups trying to wake up the public to the laws and protections for these wonderful animals."

But the singular battle over the salt plant at San Ignacio has spawned a fundamental change in how these major advocacy groups do business. They can now turn on the public spigot, using a vast, Internet-connected work force ready to believe and act, even if the facts the environmentalists provide are wrong.

The question now is whether environmentalists should take responsibility for their expanding influence, by moving beyond the bomb-lobbing that marked their victory in Baja.

Santa Cruz biologist Burney Le Boeuf points out that his recent study with Oregon scientist Bruce Mate suggests that a mysterious die-off of gray whales was caused by a severe lack of the protein-rich amphipods which whales feed on in the Arctic. Gray whales generally do not feed once they head south to Baja.

"I am actually trying to find out what threatens these beasts and what we can do about it, and I have been doing that for much of my life," says the still-angry Le Boeuf. "When I see the environmental groups use their millions of dollars for gray whale research instead of slick mailers, then I will believe they want to save whales."

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