to Preserve Baja’s Whale Nursery Celebrated, but Threats
by Dick Russell in OnEarth
" ....for there is no splendor greater than the gray when the light turns
it to silver." — Homero Aridjis, The Eye of
ago this month, the Mexican government — under intense pressure from
environmentalists — announced it was canceling a proposed industrial
salt factory at Baja's Laguna San Ignacio. The lagoon serves as the
undeveloped birthing habitat for the eastern Pacific population of
gray whales, which were hunted almost to extinction a century ago and
to make a tentative recovery. (Their Atlantic cousins succumbed to
overhunting and have disappeared from the seas.)
The sudden and surprising decision to scrap the saltworks was a landmark
victory for U.S. and Mexican environmental groups, including the Natural
Resources Defense Council, which had been fighting for five years to
stop the joint venture between Mexico and Japan's Mitsubishi Corporation.
When many of the key participants in that fight gathered last week
for a reunion at the remote lagoon, it was clear that ongoing efforts
protect this unique part of the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve were
having a profound impact.
parks on the African Serengeti, humans go to view wildlife — but here in Baja, the wildlife comes to
you. The gray whales were out
to greet everyone, some 200 strong for twice-daily whale watches, exhaling
a heart- shaped mist as they chuffed past the panga boats. They sometimes
approached close enough for onlookers to touch or even rub the baleen
inside their mouths. "A magical gift, transcending time," as
Mexican poet and environmental leader Homero Aridjis described one
two-hour visit on the water.
Gray whales make one of the longest migrations in the animal kingdom,
traveling 5,000 miles or more from sunny Baja to the cold Arctic, where
during the long days of summer. But they mate and give birth
primarily in a few special lagoons along the Baja coast. The two
other habitats they frequent have already seen considerable development,
including a large saltworks. San Ignacio alone remains pristine.
the salt project
gone forward here, it would have meant a mile-long concrete pier
across the whales' migratory path and diesel engines pumping 6,000
of sea water per second into 116 square miles of diked salt evaporation
ponds. Given the many other threats facing the 17,000 remaining gray
whales — from deafening Navy sonar to climate change impacts
on their food supply — industrial expansion into this nursery
would likely have proven disastrous.
anniversary gathering last week, a symposium to discuss future steps
for protecting the area
drew a standing-room-only crowd
over 100 people to one of the lagoon's nine eco-tourist campgrounds. "This
past decade has been a watershed moment in the way we lived and perceived
Josele Varela, president of the new Rural Association of Collective
Interests and one of a number of local community members
from among the lagoon's 205 families giving presentations.
In 2004, lagoon residents formed an alliance with some of the 36
other biosphere reserves in Mexico to exchange information. These
designated for their natural beauty to foster sustainable development. "With
this alliance, we've been able to learn new ecological methods," said
Raul Lopez. New projects at the lagoon include oyster aquaculture and
an award winning effort to grow and restore mangrove forests.
Such efforts by the lagoon's six ejidos (communal land cooperatives)
have been bolstered by the Laguna San Ignacio Conservation Alliance,
which is also comprised of five outside NGO's — NRDC, International
Fund for Animal Welfare, International Community Foundation, Wildcoast,
"I think we're about halfway to where we want to
be, in terms of increased protections for the lagoon," said Jacob
Scherr, NRDC's director of international programs.The purchase
of conservation easements now protects roughly 140,000 acres on the lagoon's eastern
side, he said. "We've also gotten a commitment from the national
government to preserve about 100,000 acres of federal lands on the
other side of the lagoon."
However, as marine biologist Steven Swartz put it, "I think we need
to remain vigilant." Mitsubishi and its Mexican counterpart, Exportadora
de Sal (ESSA), still maintain the legal right to renew their proposal.
A year after the saltworks project was halted, according to Scherr, "without
any real fanfare ESSA renewed that concession for another 50 years.
We became aware of this and are now in the process of trying to have
Mark Spalding, director of the Ocean Foundation, which fiscally
sponsors the Laguna San Ignacio Ecosystem Science Program, adds: "The land
conservation easements and other land purchases have been very strategic,
of making it extremely difficult for Exportadora to revive
the project. But future oil or gas development is still a real risk
A proposal to improve or even pave the rough road that runs 37
miles from the town of San Ignacio to the lagoon is under consideration
by Baja authorities. The local community would, of course, benefit
quicker access to fish markets and medical facilities. But many
better roads would also increase the likelihood of development.
"They want to keep the flavor of a wilderness experience, because that's
of the allure," said Swartz. Scientists are also studying
the potential noise impacts of construction, especially on the lagoon's
ongoing census of the lagoon's gray whales found an increase during
this winter's mating and breeding season, from 193 at the
peak to upwards of 260 now. However, the number of mothers
with newborns appears to have fallen. And although scientists are seeing
fewer skinny whales
year, concerns remain about the gray whales' food
supply in the warming Arctic.
Due to climate change, the tiny crustaceans called amphipods
upon which they customarily feed at the end of their 5,000-mile-long
disappeared from the traditional sites, forcing the whales to
range even farther north. "So there is nutritional stress, and
some whales have lost all their body fat," Swartz told the symposium.
Still, a decade after the saltworks was stopped, "the basic integrity
of the area has been maintained," according to NRDC's Scherr. "At
the end of the day, you can never preserve a place unless you have
the local people with you. That's what's been such an important part
story of Laguna San Ignacio."
Among the "friendly" grays this March, that was true cause
or Discussion Questions:
- How would
gray whales be affected by the Mitsubishi
plan to build the world’s largest industrial saltworks on the
shores of the most pristine whale sanctuary remaining? How
would YOU be affected?
- What questions do you have? See more links at OnEarth.