Battle to Preserve Baja’s Whale Nursery Celebrated, but Threats Remain

“….for there is no splendor greater than the gray
when the light turns it to silver.”
— Homero Aridjis, The Eye of the Whale

Gray whales break the water’s surface in Laguna San Ignacio.
photo: George Peper

Ten years 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 last undeveloped birthing habitat for the eastern Pacific population of gray whales, which were hunted almost to extinction a century ago and continue 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 to protect this unique part of the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve were having a profound impact.

At game 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 they feed 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. Had 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 gallons 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.

During the anniversary gathering last week, a symposium to discuss future steps for protecting the area drew a standing-room-only crowd of well 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 ourselves,” said 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 are sites 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, and Pronatura.

“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 it nullified.”

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, in hopes of making it extremely difficult for Exportadora to revive the project. But future oil or gas development is still a real risk here.”

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 from quicker access to fish markets and medical facilities. But many fear better roads would also increase the likelihood of development.

“They want to keep the flavor of a wilderness experience, because that’s part of the allure,” said Swartz. Scientists are also studying the potential noise impacts of construction, especially on the lagoon’s bird population.

Swartz’s ongoing census of the lagoon’s gray whales found an increase during this winter’s mating and breeding season, from 193 at the 2009 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 than last 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 migration have 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 of the story of Laguna San Ignacio.”

Among the “friendly” grays this March, that was true cause for celebration.