Baja whale refuge saved from salt mines


Migrating whales from Alaska will find their pristine Baja California breeding and birthing grounds undisturbed, Mexico’s President Ernesto Zedillo said last week.

Threatened for the past five years with the prospect of a massive saltworks project by Mitsubishi Corp., the last undeveloped breeding ground of the gray whale now seems secure.

Local environmentalists cheered Zedillo’s surprise announcement the Mexican government was withdrawing its support from the massive project, which it once viewed as a source of jobs for the impoverished area.

The government owned 51 percent and Mitsubishi 49 percent of the Exportadora de Sal company, which had altered its original plan in 1994 after Mexican environmental officials turned it down.

A Mitsubishi representative estimated the plant would have produced 216 jobs and sales of about $100 million a year.

“This is a place that has had minimum interference by humans,” Zedillo said. “It’s one of the few places like that left on the planet.”

During the five-year battle, the California Coastal Commission passed resolutions against the development and activists produced a stunningly effective campaign to boycott Mitsubishi products. Commission Chair Sara Wan said, “I couldn’t be happier. I hope the commission’s decision played a role. I praise the Mexican government for having the courage to do this.”

The company said it had received 700,000 postcards from this country opposing the planned desecration of San Ignacio Lagoon, which had been designated a whale refuge by the Mexican government in the 1970s.

Actor Pierce Brosnan was among local activists who backed the efforts of a coalition of international nature groups and the National Resources Defense Council, which feared the plant would destroy the whales’ birthing grounds by pumping huge volumes of water from the shallow northern end of the lagoon. Noise and pollution from ships were also believed a threat to fishing and ecotourism.

“This is also a victory for the local economy, the fishermen who also use their boats to take tourists to the whales,” Wan said. “They’d much rather do that than have to take a low-paying factory job.”

Wan recalled her trip to the lagoon in 1997. “I went on a panga, a little fishing boat, and the whales came up to us, and their babies climbed on the mothers’ backs to look into the boat. I got to kiss one. They like to be petted. It’s very clear they want to communicate with us.”

“The whales won, thank goodness,” said Mary Frampton, founder of Save Our Coast. “It’s the least we could do for them. I felt so overjoyed. They really do know how to connect.”

Sculptor Terri Bennett told The Malibu Times years ago she had visited the lagoon and stroked the whales as they stayed alongside the boats, even nudging their babies closer. She thought perhaps they sensed these friendly gestures might one day save their ancestral birthplace.