A Whale of a Debate over Salt Stirs in a Baja California Lagoon

Article excerpt

ONCE nearly hunted to extinction, the gray whale owes its stunning comeback this century in part to Mexico's insistence on strictly guarding the Baja California coastal waters where the whales breed and calve.

But now Mexico is seeking to extract salt from a protected lagoon that is a prime destination for the whales in their annual migration from arctic seas.

Together with Mitsubishi Corporation, the government proposes to build one of the world's largest salt-evaporation plants in a national preserve on the Baja Peninsula.

Environmentalists contend that the proposed $100-million saltworks could forever damage the whales' winter sanctuary, known as San Ignacio Lagoon, one of only a few whale nurseries in Mexico.

Critics say the proposed plant will harm a protected lagoon. Officials and their Japanese partner deny they will disturb it.

"It's very important because this is the most pristine and best-conserved lagoon," says Homero Aridjis, a poet who is president of the Group of 100, Mexico's most prominent environmental group. "There would be a complete disturbance of the place where the whales give birth to the calves."

Bruised by such charges, the government and the Japanese company in June placed two advertisements in the New York Times and top Mexican newspapers defending their plans and depicting themselves as longtime friends of cetaceans. Mexico owns 51 percent of the company that would build the plant, Exporter of Salt Inc., and Mitsubishi owns the rest.

Juan Bremer, general director of Exporter of Salt, denies that his company's project would harm the lagoon. "There's been a lot of distortion and information that's not correct - that we're going to damage the environment and the whales," Mr. Bremer says. "It's time to clarify. We are not going to do anything if it's not absolutely 100 percent compatible with the environment."

Gray whales are familiar to many on the US Pacific Coast who are thrilled by the sight of their annual 10,000-mile journeys. Scientists estimate there are more than 20,000 gray whales, most of which were born off the Baja coast.

In the 19th century, whalers dubbed their prey "devilfish," and nearly destroyed the species. Estimates of the gray whale population in the eastern Pacific at the turn of the century were only a few thousand. In 1910, according to the government, Mexico became one of the first countries to offer the gray whale some protection. In 1946, international authorities finally banned the commercial hunting of gray whales.

Now the whales are central players in a controversy that will test Mexico's commitment to upholding its own environmental laws. The San Ignacio Lagoon is part of Mexico's 6.5-million-acre Vizcaino Desert Biosphere Reserve.

Many hundreds of whales calve and nurse in and around the lagoon every year from roughly January to March. Baby whales take advantage of the shallow waters - to bolster their protective blubber and practice swimming in anticipation of their long journey back to Alaska. …