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.

One of his cohorts was Alberto Szekely, a top environmental attorney in Mexico City paid by IFAW, who ratcheted up the political attacks by filing numerous claims of wrongdoing against ESSA and the government. Szekely thought the government did indeed want to grow a town around the proposed plant at San Ignacio, "and that is precisely what we feared, the chaotic disastrous nightmare that Guerrero Negro is -- the entire town is dirty."

Numerous on-site interviews with ESSA managers and employees, from vice presidents to job trainers to union leaders, all contradicted the rumor of a plant closing or the establishment of a new town.

The plant-relocating rumor made ESSA look bad in the small fishing village of Punta Abreojos. Many of the town's residents oppose any growth, and are proud of the fact they can be reached only by a kidney-jarring 90-minute ride over washboard and blowing sand.

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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While environmental groups fanned the plant relocation rumor, they scored a more direct hit with an allegation that made headlines and inspired the first big public outcry against ESSA, the great turtle die-off of 1997.

Just before Christmas that year, 94 endangered sea turtles were found dead, floating in the sea off the Pacific coast. The environmental groups quickly blamed the Guerrero Negro saltworks for killing the turtles with an accidental spill of brine -- a thick, mineral-laden, toxic byproduct of salt evaporation.

"It was the most dramatic evidence to show that Guerrero Negro was not environmentally benign," says NRDC's Reynolds.

"We documented several environmental crimes, including the release of brine that killed turtles and fish," says Szekely.

Officials at ESSA, however, said there had been no spills, and their records support this. While the skeptical had every right not to accept company paperwork without further proof, ESSA had a logical explanation for the dead turtles, an explanation it would eventually buttress with a scientific probe.

The company blamed local fishermen, whom salt plant officials said had illegally killed the protected turtles because they are popular fare at Christmas. ESSA suggested the fishermen dumped them as inspectors approached.

The turtle die-off went international and badly bruised ESSA. Reynolds debated the issue against Mitsubishi's Brumm on KCET Public TV's Life and Times political talk show in Los Angeles, and came away crowing.

"No matter what audience we came before, or what the topic, I could always convince everybody that ESSA was wrong and we were right, because fundamentally that was true," Reynolds says.

But in the science wars over the salt plant, the truth was hardly ever clear.

The turtles are an endangered species because local fishermen have harvested them to the point of extinction and continue to poach them -- despite the law -- because of lax enforcement.

"Almost nothing happens to those who take the turtles," biologist Sánchez of El Vizcaino Biosphere, told New Times. "They pay a small fine but there is no jail time. We look to catch them three or four times so that a judge can get them a very high fine or jail time."

When the turtle kill became a story in the international press, it was ultra-sensitive because Mexico was at the same moment trying to negotiate a tuna fishing quota with the United States, after a ruinous nine-year boycott that targeted Mexico's fishermen.

The last thing the Mexican government wanted just then was a scandal that made their fishermen look like high-seas scofflaws.

Instead, the Mexican government investigated the turtle die-off for seven months, and ultimately theorized that a brine spill from the salt plant at Guerrero Negro must have made its way to the sea and poisoned the turtles.

Furious, ESSA promptly appointed a panel of scientists who found that brine did not kill the turtles. Some of the dead turtles had been found frozen, a good trick in balmy Baja. And the turtles had blood accumulated in "the ventral region or plastron," according to the ESSA panel -- suggesting they had stored on their stomachs in a freezer, in the traditional practice of a fishing vessel.

The report also noted: "Analysis of the liver, kidneys and stomach contents of the turtles did not detect lead and nickel," and the concentrations of magnesium, sodium and cadmium were all normal. "These are common elements in brine, and should have been present if a release of brine had been a factor in their deaths," the panel said.

And there was plain common sense. Marine biologist Steve Swartz and other independent scientists not hired by ESSA toured the salt plant and saw brine being stored relatively close to the shore. Nevertheless, he says, "I don't know what happened, but I do know that turtles do not group together in the sea, and it's very unlikely they would have been together or gotten into a brine spill together that killed them. Turtles don't congregate."

Furthermore, had there been a brine spill, the turtles would not have been the only creatures found dead. A visible fish kill would be expected, as well as the death of other marine life in the immediate area.

Only dead turtles were found.

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