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.

The environmental leaders, for example, suggested that the milelong pier that ESSA proposed just off the village of Punta Abreojos would kill, injure or scare off gray whales trying to enter Laguna San Ignacio. They did not inform supporters that the location of the pier was not near the lagoon but was, in fact, 15 miles to the west.

New Times obtained a list of predigested responses Payne wrote up for the famous scientists to utter if they were challenged on the pier or other hotly disputed science issues. He recommended that the 32 researchers use the following rebuttal regarding the pier: "Where the entrance to the lagoon stops and the open sea begins is just a matter of opinion. Many people, when shown a map . . . commented that [the pier] is located in the mouth of the lagoon, an area of particularly frequent whale sightings." Moreover, Payne told them to claim, "It is obvious that brine disposals and fuel spills would be entrained in tides entering the lagoon."

Ultimately, few of the renowned scientists backed off. And those who did, did so in private.

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.

Related stories:
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Read the entire series

E.O. Wilson, for example, wrote to Le Boeuf that he regretted not looking more deeply into the issue before agreeing to lend his name to the advertisement that ran in the New York Times and other publications. "Many thanks for your detailed and obviously firsthand, expert letter on gray whales and the Laguna San Ignacio saltworks," Wilson wrote. "Needless to say, I wish I had this memo in hand when responding to the protest against the saltworks. At the very least it would have caused me to question and dig deeper. It is an illustration of the need for environmentalists to cast a wide net for expertise on issues before committing their goodwill capital, so as to have maximum effect on urgent cases where scientific data and opinion are decisive."

Wilson, Woodwell, Baltimore, Kennedy, Terborgh, Raven and Ehrlich all failed to return phone calls and e-mailed requests for interviews from New Times. Ehrlich's secretary at Stanford insisted, "You cannot name him in an article about gray whales if he will not speak to you."

Direct mail expert Linda Lopez remembers that the U.S. media were slow to pick up the salt plant story in far-off Baja. It wasn't until March of 1999 that the New York Times ran its first major piece. The scientists' ad hit four months later, in July.

Not that the environmentalists didn't try. U.S. media were openly wooed. Several journalists were invited along on the costly $60,000 retreats sponsored by NRDC and IFAW that airlifted Pierce Brosnan, Glenn Close, Robert Kennedy Jr. and other prominent Americans to the parched fishing village of Punta Abreojos or to the whale-watching "fish camps" along Laguna San Ignacio.

Pampered journalists were even personally chauffeured in trucks by NRDC staffers over the washboard dirt roads, sand dunes and ancient volcanic floes that separate the tourist areas on the far southeastern side of the lagoon from Punta Abreojos, four hours northwest by land.

Joaquin Ardura, a vice president at ESSA, says he realized they could never win with the media, when the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO came out with its long-awaited report on whether the salt plant would harm the World Heritage site and other protected land and water at San Ignacio.

"UNESCO said we were a safe industry, that we had not hurt the whales, that only the landscape would change if we opened our plant at San Ignacio," says Ardura. "But somehow, the media twisted it to say UNESCO had found against us."

In fact, although they never admitted it in public, the UNESCO findings were a big blow to the environmental groups.

The UNESCO investigative mission wrote, in a nod to the rich bird environments promoted by saltworks: "production of salt in coastal lagoon systems constitutes one of the most well-integrated and best-adapted of all human activities that involve these environments." The team also found that, at the existing saltworks, "the whale population is not endangered and continues to increase."

But UNESCO found one problem, and the environmentalists used it -- and the media -- to their advantage:

The scrubby El Vizcaino Desert, a desolate place crisscrossed with impromptu truck routes, its dry washes and hillocks dotted with blowing litter that is ubiquitous to Baja, would be dramatically altered by a salt facility the size of the city of San Francisco. None of the evaporation ponds, conveyor belts or harvesting machines would be visible from the waterfront or main roads, but it was more than enough for the environmentalists.

"UNESCO was manipulated by the Mexican government into putting a number of Mexicans on the UNESCO team to water down their report, but we got what we needed," says Spalding. "We had a world-level group saying there was a problem."

Tom Knudsen, a Baja expert with the Sacramento Bee, wrote one of the few stories in the heavily slanted U.S. press that emphasized UNESCO had found the whales to be flourishing near an existing salt plant, and in no apparent danger. Reynolds says Knudsen "was the one reporter who bought all the garbage from ESSA." Knudsen retorts: "Journalists worldwide were stuck in serious group-think on Laguna San Ignacio."

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