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.

"My disgust is complete," says Paul Dayton, a Scripps Institute biologist who Payne criticized.

"Roger Payne attacked us again and again for being paid by one of the sides in the battle," says Dayton, "yet now I learn he was being paid by the other side specifically to go on the attack -- something we were never asked to do."

In one particularly nasty incident, Spalding claimed at a public forum that the director of Scripps Institute was distancing himself from Dayton and oceanographer Cliff Winant because the two scientists had been tainted by agreeing to do the salt plant research.

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.


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

"We were supposedly two renegades who'd suddenly sold out our careers for a year's worth of research funding," says Dayton, who was determining the effect on wetland worms of taking saltwater from the lagoon. "When he first popped into my office, I was very open with Spalding, showed him my work, opened the files. The research was looking like no harm was going to come to creatures in the lagoon. So suddenly, I was evil incarnate."

One pivotal victory during this time came when the California Coastal Commission ignored its staff recommendation to do further research into the science debate, and voted to oppose the saltworks. The ESSA crowd was furious, because Sara Wan, chairwoman of the commission, was an active member of NRDC and a close friend of Joel Reynolds, and did not disclose her connection despite joining in the passionate debate.

Wan says she sees "no problem" with her dual roles. Months later, when President Zedillo canceled the salt plant project, Reynolds recalls, "Sara left a message on my machine, and she was crying, she was so happy."

That's how the gray whale affected people, and those emotions proved far too powerful for research or technical debates to overcome.

Of the 10 elements in the coalition's strategy to stop the salt plant, Reynolds believes "our idea of creating a debate among scientists was one of the most effective. A lot of people think the full-page ads in the New York Times and L.A. Times turned the tide and put us on the road to victory."

For that ad, the heavy hitters came out. The ad condemned the saltworks as "an unacceptable risk" to gray whales. Scientists named included, among others: E.O. Wilson of Harvard, a dual Pulitzer Prize winner; Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Gardens; David Baltimore, president of Cal Tech and Nobel Prize winner in medicine; Roger Guillemin of Salk Institute with dual Nobel Prizes in medicine and physiology; Mario Molina of MIT, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry; John Terborgh, director of Duke University's Center for Tropical Conservation; Paul Ehrlich, head of Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology; George Woodwell, director of Woods Hole Research Center; and Sir Aaron Klug, Nobel Prize-winning president of the Royal Society.

Scientists directly involved in the research saw their reputations being tarnished and fought back. Dayton and Winant of Scripps, as well as Burney Le Boeuf of UC-Santa Cruz, sent protests to several of the most renowned scientists in the ad, and asked them to take a second look.

"Those guys in the ad were opposed to the idea of the salt plant," says Dayton. "Look, I am also personally opposed to the idea of changing this relatively untouched area, but you don't put your name as a scientist on something that's a lie."

Dayton and other researchers pointed out that claim after claim by the environmental groups was gradually being disproved by research.

For example, the coalition said noise from the power pumps used to draw seawater from San Ignacio Lagoon would bother the gray whale mothers and babies, some of whom lived in the lagoon from as early as late December until late March.

But researchers at the University of California at San Diego found that the pumps, on the edge of the salt flat, would be so distant from the deep waters of the lagoon where whales lived that the faint sounds would be drowned out by the normal background noise of the ocean.

Le Boeuf, an expert on gray whale feeding who was hired as an adviser to Mitsubishi early on, says angrily, "Snapping shrimp make more background noise than those pumps!"

Le Boeuf was appalled that the science-based attacks by the coalition had little factual basis, and he made a stink about it. He was particularly irritated that the environmental groups claimed that ESSA was a bad company that had "298 environmental violations" at Scammon's Lagoon in Guerrero Negro.

As Le Boeuf points out, the company joined a government-sponsored "clean company" program. Firms qualified for a clean rating by inviting a government inspection, getting a list of things to fix, then fixing them. The 298 supposed violations touted by the environmentalists, Le Boeuf notes, were in fact a list of problems ESSA had asked the government to identify so that ESSA could voluntarily fix them and earn the "clean company" rating.

"That's how the nonprofits played the game -- dirty, dirty, dirty," says Le Boeuf. "They played the cheapest kind of warfare I can think of."

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