Subject: Case Study: Whale vs Salt

Michael Williamson (
Thu, 6 Mar 1997 21:15:47 -0500 (EST)

J. Michael Williamson
   Principal Investigator-WhaleNet <>
   Associate Professor-Science
   Wheelock College, 200 The Riverway, Boston, MA 02215
voice: 617.734.5200, ext. 256
fax:    617.734.8666, or 617.566.7369

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu,  6 Mar 97 12:34:00 GMT 
Subject: FEATURE-Whales, salt miners sh

FEATURE-Whales, salt miners share promised land

    By Dan Trotta
     GUERRERO NEGRO, Mexico (Reuter) - Halfway down Mexico's Baja
California peninsula, where desert and virgin coastline meet in
a quirk of nature that draws both gray whales and human salt
miners, one of Mexico's most heated environmental battles is
being fought.
     The lagoons of this isolated outpost, large and shallow
inlets with small mouths to the sea, have long been the ideal
mating and calving grounds for the gray whale, calm waters in
which to give birth and escape the arctic cold of the Bering
Strait, where the whales feed during summer.
     During the late winter birthing season, tourists from around
the world flock to Guerrero Negro to watch the friendly whales
splash about the lagoon, launching themselves into the air. Some
snuggle up to tourist boats like puppies, allowing themselves to
be patted on the back. At up to 40 feet
 long, they dwarf the boats, sometimes bringing along their
young, who are about 14 feet long at birth.
     But the lagoons here are also the ideal place for humans to
mine salt, an ingredient in high world demand, not so much to
sprinkle over food but for industrial uses such as making glass,
plastic and bleach and de-icing roads.
     The high salt content of the lagoon helps the whales float
while giving birth and also makes salt mining better.

     In the small town of Guerrero Negro, alongside Scammon's
Lagoon, known locally as Laguna Ojo de Liebre, the world's
largest salt mine churns out 7 million tons of salt per year in
a joint venture between Japan's Mitsubishi Corp and the Mexican
     The company wants to expand operations to a second lagoon, a
plan the Group of 100, Mexico's most prominent environmental
group, calls "ecocide." The company counters that the project
would do no harm to the whales and that opponents need only
take a closer look at their proposal to agree.
     A special commission led by seven scientists from four
countries is studying the issue and will make recommendations
next year to Mexico's National Ecology Institute (INE), which
can accept or reject the proposal.
     "This project is interesting in the way it changed
environmental policy in Mexico," Jose Angel Sanchez Pacheco, a
local marine biologist with INE, told Reuters during a tour of
the lagoon.
     "Now it's no longer just a political decision if a project
of this magnitude is approved or not," he said. "Now there's a
scientific committee that will advise those making the decision.
It's something very good that has come out of all the polemic."
     The joint venture, Exportadora de Sal SA de CV, sells its
product to both coasts of North America, Japan, Korea, Taiwan,
New Zealand, Mexico and Colombia. It wants to replicate its
longtime operation at Scammon's Lagoon at San Ignacio Lagoon,
about 90 miles to the south.
     Environmentalists loathe the proposal. To them the gray
whale is a quintessential success story, having been removed
from the endangered species list in 1994 after the world whaling
ban allowed its population to grow to about 25,000 today from
just a few hundred in the 1940s.

     Brigitte Bardot has spoken out against the salt project and
more than 60 international environmental groups came to the aid
of the Group of 100, which raised enough money to buy a
full-page advertisement of protest in the New York Times.
     "This is the most pristine of the three nurseries," Betty
Ferber, the international coordinator of the Group of 100, said
of San Ignacio Lagoon. "Once you build something like this you
can't go back."
     But supporters of the project say the opponents protest out
of ignorance, unaware that the proposal would not hurt the
whales at all. "They're poets," said Javier Lopez, the mayor
of Guerrero Negro and a champion of the salt-mine expansion.
     Non-scientific backers of the salt mine expansion say that
basedon 40 years of lay observation they already know there
would be no negative impact. "We've operated 40 years here
exporting salt, and in 40 years the number of whales has
doubled," company official Joaquin Ardura told Reuters. "With
each day more whales enter this lagoon. We haven't seen that our
operation affects them."
     Ocean-based salt mining is a relatively simple process of
drawing water from the lagoon, trapping it in huge natural
basins separated by manmade dikes and letting the sun and wind
do the rest, evaporating the water until, after two years, all
that is left is salt. Scarce rainfall here helps.
     The proposed project would draw 600 million tons of sea
water from San Ignacio Lagoon per year, which some fear could
change the temperature or salinity of lagoon water. Additional
ship traffic could interfere with whale migration patterns.
     But until the study is done, expected about a year and a
half from now, it is all speculation, experts said.