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Future of Whales' Lagoon Grows Murky

Sea: Environmentalists protest saltworks, whose planners say they and the animals can coexist.

March 13, 1997|FRANK CLIFFORD | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

LAGUNA SAN IGNACIO, Mexico — A friendly boatman tells a little girl that if she blows bubbles in the sea, a whale might come. She does and it does, swimming close enough to the boat that the little girl can reach out and touch its great benign, barnacled snout.

The girl strokes the creature as if it were a family pet, and one of the largest mammals on Earth--almost twice the length of the 20-foot boat--lolls on its side, bumping gently against the gunwale, the long crease of its jaw forming a smile line.

This wind-swept inlet 600 miles south of San Diego is a preposterous, wondrous place where the divide between fantasy and reality vanishes, where scientists are left standing clueless at the dock and some preternatural law maybe best understood by children takes over.

The same creatures who were all but hunted to extinction in these waters more than a century ago now rise up from the deep, piggybacking their newborns, to welcome the descendants of the hunters, oblivious to human purposes which, in some cases, remain troublesome if not downright threatening.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 14, 1997 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Whale lagoon--In a story Thursday about a campaign by environmental groups to protect a lagoon where whales breed in Baja California, The Times erroneously reported the name of the organization represented by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He is a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A 17-mile-long indentation in Baja California's Pacific coast, the lagoon is the last virtually undisturbed refuge for gray whales who come by the thousands, migrating here from Alaska to mate and have their young. It is part of a protected area, a biosphere reserve.

But the designation does not preclude all development. Here on the lagoon's edge, the Mexican government, in partnership with Mitsubishi Corp., a Tokyo-based investment company, is renewing a campaign to build the largest salt-mining operation in the world.

In this storybook environment, it is easy to portray any commercial intrusion as a giant grinch. Such was the purpose last week of a gathering of environmental leaders from the United States and Mexico.

Accompanied by a bevy of invited celebrities, the group of about 50 assembled at a whale watching camp on a rocky spit called Punta Piedra to begin building an emotional consensus against a project that scientists, while apprehensive, are not certain will harm the whales.

"We do not have the right to destroy something we cannot re-create," Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a lawyer for the national Resources Defense Council and son of the late attorney general, said in an opening salvo against the saltworks. "If we destroy the whales, we ourselves are going to be diminished."

No Clear-Cut Guidance

Kennedy, along with actors Glenn Close and Pierce Brosnan and filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau, were--after the whales--the stars of an event calculated to kick off an international campaign to block the salt production facility.

Meanwhile, 50 miles up the coast, gray whales and saltworks, for better or worse, have been sharing the waters off the town of Guerrero Negro for 40 years. It is the expansion of that operation to Laguna San Ignacio that has set off the storm of protest that led to last week's seaside summit of environmental groups.

Unfortunately, the history of human presence at Guerrero Negro does not provide a clear-cut guide to the well-being of whales that are forced to live in an industrial neighborhood.

At Guerrero Negro, when ships began intruding on their calving grounds, the whales all but abandoned one small lagoon while thriving in another, larger one.

But whales aren't the only creatures at risk. The mangroves and desert surrounding San Ignacio support thousands of birds and animals, including endangered pronghorn antelope and black sea turtles.

There are people here too, a few hundred intrepid fishermen and their families in a handful of primitive fishing camps without electricity, potable water or health services.

The saltworks would augment existing operations that already ship 6.5 million metric tons of salt to Japan, Canada and the United States for use in producing plastics, sodium hypochlorite and road salt for highway ice. Company officials also dangle the prospect of 200 jobs, $100 million in export revenues and modern conveniences.

"It's a good idea. There will be more jobs, and something for me to do when I get too old to fish," said Celso Torres Aguirre, a resident of El Cardon, a local fishing village.

But Aguirre is also conscious of the high risks involved--of spills and contamination that could spell disaster for the abalone, scallops, clams and other valuable shallow-water species that people like him depend on for their livelihoods. "If they aren't careful how they manage fuel or other chemicals," he said, "it could damage the sea."

Salt production would require the pumping of enormous quantities of seawater, resulting in a potential change in salinity and water temperature in the upper lagoon that "may impact bivalve and fish spawning, growth rates, resistance to disease and survival," said Bruce Mate, the director of marine biology at Oregon State University and a member of an international team of scientists asked by the Mexican government to assess the risks of the proposed project.

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