Crying Whale

Environmental groups sent out a worldwide call to save the gray whale from a Mexican salt plant. They got millions of dollars and thousands of new members. But scientists found no threat to the whales.

In the spring of 1999, nearly two years after the turtle scare, environmental organizations in Mexico opposed to the new salt plant filed a criminal complaint accusing ESSA of killing whales. Homero Aridjis, with the watchdog Group of 100, publicly accused ESSA of killing 18 whales in the lagoons of Guerrero Negro.

It turned out to be a wild allegation.

In fact, more than 600 gray whales did die in 1999 and 2000 -- an unprecedented number. But the carcasses were scattered from Baja all along the migratory route along the continental United States, Canada, Alaska, and the Arctic. The die-off was not centered in the lagoons near the salt plant.

Scientists are investigating evidence that the whales starved. They are focused on the gray whale's food source, shrimplike amphipods that live in the mud on the bottom of the Bering Sea, at the opposite end of the Earth from Guerrero Negro (see "Conundrum," by Patti Epler, Nov. 7).

There is not a single, credible whale scientist who has suggested brine contamination caused the die-off of whales in Baja, or that the 18 dead whales were anything other than local evidence of a hemispheric problem facing all grays. But that did not stop the media from printing Aridjis' allegations, unaware that a worldwide die-off of gray whales was under way.

Had journalists done a simple, two-minute Internet search, they would have uncovered numerous articles from December 1998 through the winter of 1999 documenting a gray whale die-off stretching across a vast habitat from Siberia to Baja. But reporters didn't attempt to put things in context. As a result, the vehement denials of guilt by Mitsubishi and ESSA left them sounding like perpetrators caught with a smoking gun.

Urged on by environmental groups, members of the public sent the Mexican Environment Ministry 20,000 letters demanding that Mexico stop killing whales. The agency head, Julia Carabias Lillo, saying NRDC was responsible for the letter-writing campaign, told Mexico's Chamber of Deputies that the smear was "offensive and unacceptable."

If Cabinet ministers in Mexico were outraged, the employees at the salt plant in Guerrero Negro were shell-shocked.

"We had always gotten great press," says Joaquin Ardura, technical director of ESSA. "Every year during whale season the Mexican media would come and see our salt ponds filled with migrating birds, and go far out to the lagoon to see the baby whales. We patrol to make sure no unauthorized boats disrupt the habitat. We have the most strict protections of any lagoon in Baja. But after the Mexican environmental groups joined the Americans, the media turned on us. They started attacking us over the whales. For years it was whales, whales, whales."

Some employees at ESSA could hardly bear the criticisms. Years before, ESSA had adopted a gray whale as its logo. Employees prided themselves on protecting against human encroachment at Scammon's Lagoon. They took ESSA's well-heeled customers from Asia and the U.S. on special trips to the deep waters, where they would await the prized close-up visits from curious baby whales.

But now employees were crying in hallways, baffled. "We would go somewhere for a business trip, and people would say, "Oh, you're the whale killers,'" Edmundo Elorduy, vice president of marine operations at ESSA, laughs bitterly.

ESSA's president, the brash Juan Bremmer, had no idea how to respond to an American-style media blitz. Here he was, offering an extremely rare chance for more than 200 middle-class jobs in Baja, and people were angry. He could not grasp why.

"What did they want?" asks Bremmer today. "I never could get them to explain what they wanted."

Had Bremmer understood the breadth of the forces gathering against him, he probably would not have gotten any satisfaction.

The environmental effort grew exponentially. The three original groups brought in the highly activist Baja-based estuary and wetlands protectors known as Pro Esteros, plus 50 groups including Greenpeace Mexico and the World Wildlife Fund. Local environmentalists like the Martinez sisters of Ensenada helped lead the ground forces who organized protests and influenced Mexican media coverage.

Poet Aridjis recruited famous Mexican citizens including Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes. A huge boost came when Andreas Rozental, one of Mexico's most revered diplomats, joined the cause and brought his substantial international clout with him.

As part of a 10-element plan to stop the plant, attorney Szekely began issuing dramatic charges that the whales were in danger -- stories that were fed to the Mexico City press by a top-flight public relations firm Rozental had brought in.

Part of their core strategy was to divert ESSA and the Mexican authorities on science issues and environmental claims while they mounted a global political attack.

Environmental groups demanded, for example, that the scope of ESSA's environmental impact assessment not be set by Mexico's Institute of Ecology (like the EPA), since ESSA was 51 percent owned by the Mexican government. They demanded that a panel of top, independent international scientists decide what environmental issues should be studied. That blue-ribbon panel spent months holding "scoping hearings" to hammer out "terms of reference" -- the questions that had to be researched and mitigated if a salt plant were ever built at San Ignacio.

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