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. …