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.

"Have failed to investigate fully the threat to whales . . ."

"The Mexican government will not reject this latest threat to whales . . ."

"Focus worldwide attention on this new threat to gray whales . . ."

Jim Brumm, vice president of Mitsubishi International.
Jim Brumm, vice president of Mitsubishi International.
Environmental groups raised millions of dollars to fight the Baja salt factory through "Save the whales" campaigns.
Environmental groups raised millions of dollars to fight the Baja salt factory through "Save the whales" campaigns.


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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Read the entire series

"If you endanger whales you will pay a heavy price in the US marketplace . . ."

Adams' letter went on for five single-spaced pages, a length that suggests there was ample room to explain complex legal issues, had that been the goal.

Saying that the legal issues and "illegal precedent" were too complicated for the public to embrace doesn't wash with some independent scientists who were close to the battle but never took sides.

Whale expert Steve Swartz says: "To say, look, we don't have that many wild areas left and this one is already protected and it's worth more as an undeveloped area like a national park than anything man could put there, the public readily understands that."

Swartz sat on a committee of marine biologists from the U.S., Europe, South America and Mexico who, at the request of the Mexican government and with the blessings of the environmentalists, hammered out a lengthy list of studies that Mitsubishi was required to complete in the environmental impact study.

Today he works for the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. But speaking as a private citizen, he says: "Whales get people's attention because they are sexier than park rangers in uniform. The environmentalists did not want to make the more difficult argument for leaving the land untouched, so they used the gray whale. There was a lot going on in this battle, but it had nothing to do with risk to whales."

Once the plant was canceled, the environmental study that Swartz helped shape -- though completed -- was never released.

The research, several thousand pages, was the most detailed examination of the gray whale's lagoons ever and Mexico's most comprehensive environmental impact assessment.

The EIA concluded that the proposed saltworks posed no threat to gray whales or any creatures in Laguna San Ignacio. "The EIA concludes that from an environmental standpoint, the project is feasible and compatible with the biosphere reserve's objectives and with the objectives of the World Heritage site system. The project would not adversely affect gray whales or other marine or terrestrial species of plants and animals and it could actually benefit species by creating ponds that are attractive to birds and other species."

The exhaustive EIA confirmed existing, if incomplete, research that had been conducted over decades at the salt plant at Guerrero Negro. Independent scientists, staff at the Biosphere and, more recently, Jorge Urbana under contract to ESSA, had all examined the whale population -- primarily to do head counts -- in Scammon's Lagoon.

Globally respected conservationist Exequiel Ezcurra, president of Mexico's National Institute of Ecology, who has been called the "Mexican Bruce Babbitt," commented about the environmentalists and their tactics: "What they did was morally incorrect and politically incorrect. . . . They squeezed money out of Americans by promoting borderline racism that Mexico is a place without laws, that the gray whale was in trouble, and that Americans were the only ones to the rescue. I beg to differ."

The environmental groups hoped to, in effect, change the rules involving the boundaries and protections of Baja's El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, already Latin America's largest land preserve. The Biosphere -- a designation of specially protected land granted by UNESCO -- is divided into two zones: a core and a buffer. Development is allowed in the buffer zone -- so long as it does no serious harm to the plants or animals -- and is forbidden in the core.

Both the existing and proposed salt plant are located in the vast buffer zone, but the environmentalists wanted the proposed saltworks at Laguna San Ignacio treated as if it were going to be plopped into the sensitive core area. They opposed development anywhere around Laguna San Ignacio.

Payne, the humpback whale specialist who led the charge against the salt plant by scientists in nationwide newspaper ads, opined that it was "land where nothing should ever be built."

Yet the land is hardly wilderness. The Biosphere's guidelines describe the area as containing "40,000 people . . . mainly concentrated in the towns. . . . Inhabitants are dependent upon intensive agriculture, fishing, extensive livestock grazing, mining and tourism."

One Biosphere administrator says it is wrong to suggest that people inside the buffer zones should not have access to productive jobs. Indeed, the international management plan for the Biospheres, known as the Seville Strategy '95, contemplates that the world's Biospheres should have a mix of economic and social activities including "agriculture, forestry, hunting and extracting, water and energy supply, fisheries, tourism, recreation and research" to ensure benefits to local peoples.

Mexico itself said much the same when the El Vizcaino reserve was first created.

According to the environmental impact study, the executive order that created the Biosphere "expressly allows productive activities within the buffer zone and acknowledges the importance of solar evaporation salt extraction" -- or saltworks.

Because salt plants rely upon solar and wind power and use a renewable resource -- ocean water -- they have relatively little impact on the environment. They have some impact, but are usually not seen as an enemy of nature.

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