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.

Yet the real victory was a triumph of public relations over public policy.

In a yearlong investigation on both sides of the border involving extensive interviews, on-site inspections and review of published and unpublished scientific studies and documents, New Times has found no scientific basis to suggest the salt plant proposed at Laguna San Ignacio represented even a mild threat to the baby grays or the adult whales.

"We who study the gray whale suspected there would not be much," says biologist Jorge Urban, Mexico's leading gray whale authority. "First, whales already co-exist with salt plants. Second, we know the gray whale is quite adaptable because its population has recovered even though it spends much of its life traveling through a world of industry and humans, from Alaska to Baja and back. I participated in the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment), and my confidence is high that there would be no ill effects."

Salt factory operations have proven to be compatatible with the environment at Guerrero Negro, even providing a sanctuary for migrating birds.
Salt factory operations have proven to be compatatible with the environment at Guerrero Negro, even providing a sanctuary for migrating birds.

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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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The truth dwelt quietly for half a century just up the road from Laguna San Ignacio.

About 100 miles north, an existing Mitsubishi-Mexico partnership known as Exportadora del Sal (ESSA) operates a huge salt plant in the town of Guerrero Negro. The ESSA saltworks is of the very same design as proposed at Laguna San Ignacio, utilizing thousands of acres of natural salt flats in the Baja desert to create vast, shallow ponds of evaporating seawater and miles of snow-white, salt-harvesting fields.

These are the crucial facts few Americans ever heard: The ESSA salt plant sits directly on the shore of stunning Scammon's Lagoon -- the world's largest gray whale nursery, and by far the most popular with pregnant gray whales. One thousand of them return every year to calve in the deep waters of the lagoon, which is more than double the size of Laguna San Ignacio.

During the nearly five decades the saltworks has operated next to Scammon's Lagoon, gray whale babies -- known as calves -- have prospered and cavorted in its clear blue waters. Indeed, the population of calves and mothers who live in Scammon's waters from January to March each year before heading home to Alaska and the Arctic has steadily increased over 40 years.

But few among the public, especially Americans, ever heard about Guerrero Negro.

Even the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), persuaded during an intense global lobbying effort by NRDC and IFAW to send a team to Baja to examine the threat to whales by the proposed saltworks at San Ignacio, found the existing salt plant at Scammon's was compatible with whale calving and breeding.

Indeed, its team concluded that the proposed salt facility at Laguna San Ignacio appeared to create only one major environmental concern -- dramatic transformation of the desert landscape on the north side of the lagoon by huge tracts of manmade salt ponds.

Undeterred by UNESCO's report or by decades of existing studies conducted by whale experts at Scammon's Lagoon dating back to the '60s, environmentalists insisted the whales were at risk. Key environmentalists began to savage the ethics of top scientists, who had agreed to conduct the most massive environmental impact study in Mexico's history into the proposed saltworks.

With the passage of time, environmental leaders -- while continuing to insist the whales were in danger -- have become quite candid that the save-the-whale battle cry was a tool, campaign rhetoric to achieve their principal goal, the cessation of development.

"Anyone who believes this was ever a debate on the science of gray whales is naive," says Vermont humpback whale researcher Roger Payne, the sole whale expert among 34 award-winning scientists named in ads opposed to the plant. "This was only about politics and stopping the world's largest corporation from ignoring legal protections on land where nothing should ever be built, no matter how many jobs it brings."

The anti-salt plant groups were indeed out to stop a slippery slope phenomenon they saw as more important than any threat to whales: development of lands in the buffer zone of a presidentially decreed biosphere reserve that also contained a UNESCO World Heritage site, whale preserve and bird sanctuary.

Mark Spalding, the top consultant NRDC hired, says, "Early on, I was clear in saying the whale biologists could be right, it won't hurt the whales, but this project was an illegal precedent. It was going to be too complex to explain all these legal issues to people, and everyone knew the gray whale would impact with the American public."

Spalding may have warned his employers, the NRDC and IFAW, internally that the marine biologists might be proved correct, but that is far from the message the environmentalists fed to the public.

The solicitation for donations and support sent out in the winter of 1997 by NRDC president John Adams, was typical of the genre:

"Our continent's most spectacular wildlife nursery is in grave danger . . ."

"Giant diesel engines will pump six thousand gallons of water out of the lagoon every second reducing the precious salinity that is so vital to newborn whales . . ."

"A mile-long pier will cut directly across the path of the whales causing potential injury and death to those whales that attempt to navigate under it . . ."

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