Subject: Salt and Whales: EXP--Whale Summit (fwd)

Michael Williamson (
Mon, 17 Mar 1997 14:31:30 -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: Mon, 17 Mar 97 12:43:00 GMT 
Subject: EXP--Whale Summit

EXP--Whale Summit

 Associated Press Writer
   LAGUNA SAN IGNACIO, Mexico (AP) -- His black waders streaked with
salt, the fisherman reached below the water's sun-warmed surface
and patted the nose of a baby gray whale who had sidled up to the
   The 40-ton mother whale was still recuperating from labor. She
patiently drifted underneath her calf as he basked in the
fisherman's attention.
   Later that afternoon, the fisherman, 29-year-old Luis Geronimo
Murillo Aguilar, restarted the small motor on his wooden boat and
sped to a nearby campsite where American and Mexican
environmentalists were meeting.
   The environmentalists had gathered to discuss how to stop a
proposed salt factory on the shores of the lagoon -- the last
undeveloped calving ground for the California gray whale.
   "I hope they have details," Murillo said of the visitors.
"It's just that I prefer to be a fisherman than work for the
   Murillo and his brothers have always earned their living from
this isolated lagoon more than 500 miles south of San Diego. For
several months a year, they supplement their incomes as
whale-watching tour guides.
   The area's riches lie in the lagoon's 65-degree water, where
animals have not learned to fear humans and gray whales and
dolphins gingerly approach small crafts.
   Scientists estimate that during migration season from January to
late March as many as 300 of the world's 18,000 gray whales gather
here at one time. Females arrive to give birth, and males to
protect their mates.
   Some environmentalists say the lagoon's salinity is slightly
higher than the ocean's average of 3.5 percent, helping make it a
healthy nursery for whales.
   After a 5,000-mile migration that begins off the Alaskan
coastline, expectant mothers enter the lagoon's slightly warmer
waters, where they float more easily and can be assured their
newborn will rise to the surface almost immediately to take its
first breath.
   For weeks, the newborns consume only their mother's milk, a
nutrient-rich liquid with 55 percent fat content. The babies gain
about 50 pounds a day and build muscular strength in an area free
from nets, tankers or predators.
   Locals insist that successive generations of whales return.
Murillo and other fishermen know certain whales by telltale dark
patches or jagged harpoon scars. The older, wounded mammals are
part of the small group that until 1994 was on the endangered
species list, residents said.
   They learned afterward, however, that the gray whale was again
in danger. A Mexican environmental group discovered that a
subsidiary of Mitsubishi Inc. was developing plans to build the
world's largest salt factory in Laguna San Ignacio.
   In 1995, the subsidiary, Exportada de Sal, S.A. (known as ESSA),
submitted blueprints for the proposed salt factory to Mexico's
environmental agency. Partly because of protests from Grupo de los
Cien, the Mexican environmentalist group, the agency said the plant
might violate the tranquility of the world's last undeveloped gray
whale calving area.
   ESSA, the world's second-largest salt producer, has hired
experts to assess the plant's environmental risks and will present
a new report next year, company officials said.
   If the second study reveals the saltworks would harm the
environment, they said, the project would be abandoned. So far,
businessmen in the state capital of La Paz and the governor have
endorsed the $120 million plant. The Mexican government owns 51
percent of the company, Mitsubishi 49 percent.
   According to ESSA's plans, a battery of diesel engines would
drain the lagoon of 6,000 gallons of saltwater per second. The
water would spread out on the desert floor where it would
   The salination process, according to a spokesman for Mitsubishi
International Corp., is natural and mild.
   "It's perfect for a solar evaporation salt factory," said
spokesman Stephen Weschselblatt. "Nature created it. You don't
have to do anything except wait fortwo years until the water turns
to salt."
   Patricia Martinez disagreed. She's director of the binational
group ProEsteros, which seeks to shield salt marshes from
   "They can't keep taking, taking and taking minerals from the
water and not change entirely this area," she said.
   Workers would rake up the salt and load it onto tankers by a
mile-long conveyer belt. Environmentalists claim the pier would
clearly hinder the whales' entry into the lagoon.
   Marine biologist Rob Nawojchik said he is concerned about the
twice-weekly presence of diesel tankers in the lagoon; the noise
could disorient the whales or introduce stress during the bonding
time between mother and calf.
   "The noise pollution is a factor," he said from his office at
Mystic Marine Life Aquarium in Mystic, Conn. "They're living in an
acoustic environment. They don't rely on their sight that much."
   The estimated six million tons of salt taken each year from
Laguna San Ignacio could be sold to chlorinemanufacturers, table
salt companies or other companies looking to buy the raw crystals
in bulk, ESSA officials said.
   "The big money of these waters will be in the labs of Japan,"
said Mark Spalding, an international environmental law professor
and author of a report on the proposed factory. "Japan gets rich,
and Mexico doesn't."
   Spalding, Martinez and representatives from Grupo de los Cien,
as well as activists affiliated with the Washington-based National
Resource Defense Council, met at the lagoon March 7 to talk about
ESSA's plans. They pledged to continue working to fight the plant's
   Everyone at the meeting agreed a salt factory would permanently
destroy an entire ecosystem, which has thrived since 1988 when the
Mexican government declared it part of a protected federal
biosphere reserve.
   But there appear to be few recourses left for opponents.
"Enforcing a federal biosphere reserve is nearlyidents.
   On a good summer day, Murillo and his colleagues can pull in up
to 220 pounds of white sea bass, hammerhead shark and shellfish.
Bringing those fresh catches to town is always hampered by the
gully-ripped road.
   The improved road is only one of many benefits the backers of
the salt factory are promoting to local residents. They also stress
the jobs that the factory will create and the increased income that
will help residents build new houses and otherwise improve their