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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mexican Whales

Air Date: Week of

Each Autumn dozens of grey whales migrate along the Pacific coast from the Bering Sea to spend winters in warm southern waters. Some take refuge in a series of lagoons on Mexico's isolated Baja California peninsula to give birth. But, the whales aren't always able to raise their young in peace. Only one of the lagoons remains largely wild, and now even that could change. In a joint venture, the Mexican government and the Mitsubishi Corporation are planning a massive salt evaporation complex there in a bid to make Mexico the world's largest producer of salt. Scientists aren't sure about the impact of the salt works, but there are fears it could disrupt the breeding of the whales which have only recently rebounded after being nearly wiped out by hunting. From Mexico City, Jana Schroeder reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Each autumn, dozens of grey whales migrate along the Pacific Coast from the Bering Sea, to spend winters breeding and raising their young in warm southern waters. Some take refuge in a series of lagoons on Mexico's isolated Baja California peninsula. But development has been altering Baja California, and today only one of the lagoons remains largely wild. Now, even that could change. In a joint venture, the Mexican government and the Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan, are planning a large sea water evaporation plant, which would make Mexico the world's largest producer of salt. Scientists aren't sure about the precise impact of the proposed salt works, but there is some concern that it could compromise reproduction of these great beasts, who until recently were hunted to the brink of extinction. From Mexico City, Jana Schroeder reports.

SHROEDER: More than 300 migrating grey whales find a temporary winter home, in the San Ignacio lagoon in Baja California each year. The pristine lagoon has just the right condition for female whales to bear and nurse their young. The shallow, warm waters keep calves from losing too much body heat, and the lagoon's high salinity gives them the buoyancy needed for nursing. The high salinity also makes the lagoon perfect for a $120 million salt evaporation plant, according to the Exportadora company, co-owned by the Mexican government and the Japanese Mitsubishi Corporation. The company's assistant technical director, Joaquin Ardura says the project would be a perfect example of sustainable development.

ARDURA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: It won't exhaust any resources. Our raw material is sea water, not some non-renewable resource, and it doesn't generate any waste. It's a clean process.

SCHROEDER: Mr. Ardura says the project won't threaten the whales, or other endangered birds and sea turtles in the area. But environmentalists don't agree.

MITASTEIN: So it's going to change all the condition, for the lagoons. For the whales, and for the fisheries, there is a, there is a, there is a, a very, high productivity in the lagoon.

SCHROEDER: Monique Mitastein is the director of Greenpeace, Mexico. She fears the project would change the lagoon's salinity and water temperature, the very conditions making it suitable for the whales. Environmentalists are also worried that noisy cargo ships could spill fuel oil, disrupt the whales' sensitive acoustic environment, and cut across their migratory routes. An earlier proposal for the plant was rejected by Mexico's Environment Ministry, and last year authorities set out rigorous requirements for a new proposal. The proposed salt plant has pitted two branches of the Mexican government against each other. The Commerce Ministry is openly promoting it, as part of Mexico's drive for economic development. The Environment Ministry, meanwhile, is staking its integrity as a newly invigorated force in Mexican government, on an independent review of the project. In the past, the decision would almost certainly have been made in the President's office, and the environment would likely have lost out to the dollars the project would generate. But Guadalupe Benavides, a spokesperson for the Environment Ministry, says that's no longer the case.

BENEVIDES: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: If we were going to leave it up to the President, we would not be carrying out this transparent process. We would not invite a committee of international experts to analyze the situation.

SCHROEDER: Ms. Benavides says things are changing in Mexico. She says government decisions are being opened up to public scrutiny, and she insists the ultimate decision will be based on the scientific recommendation of the international committee. But Monique Mitastein of Greenpeace isn't convinced that things have changed. She says there are still just too many cases where environment authorities give in to business interests.

MITASTEIN: It's a very clever, ah, strategy that they are going to use, going to use this committee, to say the committee says that there are no, problems.

SCHROEDER: Environmental groups in Mexico and the US say there's a lot riding on the decision on the proposed salt plant: the fate of one of the last undisturbed calving grounds of a creature only just back from the edge of extinction, and Mexico's newly stated commitment to environmental protection, and honest government. For Living on Earth, I'm Jana Schroeder.



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