Issue Guide: Will the Mitsubishi Salt facility hurt the gray whales in Laguna San Ignacio?

by Lisa Gustafson, Julie Reyes, Walter Wihardja, Caroline Tran and Loan Le

Campuswide Honors Program, University of California, Irvine
Instructor: Dr. Peter J. Bryant (pjbryant@uci.edu), Interdisciplinary Minor in Global Sustainability


Artwork By Richard Ellis



 

The Problem

The Mexican government and the Mitsubishi Corporation are pursuing a joint venture to build the world's largest industrial salt evaporation facility at Laguna San Ignacio on the west coast of Baja California, Mexico. This lagoon is one of the world's last Gray Whale breeding and calving refuges unmarred by human activity.

History of the Gray Whale

The California Gray Whale is an endangered species success story. Twice having faced commercial extinction and the threat of biological extinction, its population has risen to pre-whaling levels. Hunted primarily for oil in the mid-nineteenth century, it was too rare to warrant commercial whaling by the 1870's. Whaling resumed in the early twentieth century when the whale population increased. However, it was to be short lived; by 1935, the California Gray Whale had again reached commercial extinction. As of 1994, the population numbered 21,000 within the estimates of the pre-whaling population.

The continued success of The California Gray Whale is dependent on its ability to produce and rear future generations. The whales migrate from the Arctic Ocean to the lagoons of Baja California each winter where they give birth and raise their calves. In these sheltered lagoons, the young whales' survival is favored by warmer waters and higher salinity than are found in the open sea.

Evicted from Guerrero Negro

Laguna Guerrero Negro, located in the Vizcaino Desert Biosphere Reserve, is the northernmost of the three main breeding lagoons of the California Gray Whale. Exportadora de Sal, S.A. (ESSA) has been operating a salt production facility here for the past four decades, making the Guerrero Negro facility the world's largest saltworks. It currently produces around seven million tons of salt per year. ESSA salt is one of the purest in the world. According to ESSA, the Guerrero Negro facility has no more room to grow. ESSA wants to build another saltworks adjacent to San Ignacio, thus doubling the size of its current operations.

Salt Production at Guerrero Negro

The production of salt takes two years using two main steps. First, the salt content of the lagoon water needs to be raised. This is done by moving the water, over a period of 18 months, from one concentration pond to another. Solar and wind energy work to evaporate the water. After the evaporation process is completed, the water is then moved to shallow crystallization ponds where eventually it will be harvested, cleaned, and ready to be transported. Most of the salt will be used for chemical and industrial purposes, agriculture, food production and salting roads.

Environmental Impact

Over the past 30 years the ESSA saltworks has disrupted the ecological balance of Laguna Guerrero Negro. During the time that the lagoon entrance was being dredged to allow commercial shipping to enter and leave, gray whales no longer used the lagoon.

ESSA denies that it has ever engaged in any environmentally damaging behavior. It claims that its saltworks is compatible with and "highly protective of the ecosystem, possibly promoting biodiversity in the region". ESSA often uses its past experience at Laguna Guerrero Negro to support their claim, but according to environmentalists, the two lagoons [Guerrero Negro and San Ignacio] cannot be compared. Laguna Guerrero Negro is larger and deeper than Laguna San Ignacio. Thus the environmental and social effect of a saltworks at San Ignacio would be more strongly felt.

Laguna San Ignacio: The last untouched breeding ground for the Gray Whale

Laguna San Ignacio is now one of the last undisturbed breeding and calving lagoons for the California Gray Whale. It is now being proposed as a possible site for a saltworks production sponsored by the Mitsubishi corporation and the Mexican government (Reynolds 1997: 18). Each winter, many of the 20,000 gray whales swimming 5,000 miles from the Bering Strait in Alaska to Baja stop near San Ignacio in order to give birth to new whales and to allow those newborns to mature in the relatively tranquil waters of the lagoon before reemerging in the more turbulent waters of the ocean. The warm waters and naturally high salinity of the lagoon help to make it a healthy nursery for whales. The warmth provides heat to the newborns and prevents excessive losses of body temperature. The newborns are able to use less energy in maintaining a constant body temperature. The salt content of the lagoon is an average of 3.5% higher than that of the ocean, which enables the whales to become more buoyant and expend much less energy remaining afloat. This facilitates the mothers' laboring process as well as enabling the newborns to rise to the surface easily and almost immediately to take their first breaths. The increased buoyancy of a whale in the lagoon, caused by the higher salinity, is also helpful for the newborns that are just learning to swim and nurse. The lagoon also provides shelter and protection from the rough waves and stormy waters of the open sea rendering it far less likely for a mother and her calf to be separated. Very few baby whales could possibly survive being separated from their mothers in the nursing stage. For the first several weeks, baby whales consume only their mother's milk. The calves gain about 50 pounds a day and are able to build muscular strength in a calm area free from nets, tankers, ships, predators, or any other threat to their survival. All of these natural benefits of Laguna San Ignacio substantially increase the survival rates of newborns as well as provide a satisfactory nursing environment. The question is, then, whether the production of a saltworks facility will alter negatively the community of San Ignacio, both the gray whales and people.

Trouble in Laguna San Ignacio

Some propose that with the production of a saltworks at Laguna San Ignacio, the California Gray Whale will be endangered because this last haven will be unquestionably altered, stripping from these whales the last sanctuary left to them. They propose that the gray whales will be driven away by changes in the surrounding environment. The lives of the people within the community, moreover, would be fundamentally altered because the people of San Ignacio rely on small-scale fishing and the tourism from people coming to see the whales for earnings.

However, others, such as Exportadora de Sal, assert that a saltworks in San Ignacio would produce more jobs and promote economic security (San Ignacio Site). This aspect appears questionable, since many of the proposed workers will be those imported from Japan; Of the 208 jobs to be created, only half will be available to Mexican nationals. Therefore, the full benefits (the jobs created) by the production of such a acility will not be realized by the residents of San Ignacio.

How would the salt evaporation facility threaten the whales?

The industrial salt evaporation plant may destroy the whales' habitat by changing the beneficial characteristics of the lagoon through noise, physical disturbances, and shipping traffic. The proposed project includes more than 116 miles of pumps, evaporation ponds, processing facilities, and a 2km long pier. First, the water must be pumped out of the lagoon by a battery of loud diesel engines that would run constantly. As whales live in an acoustic environment, they rely heavily on their auditory abilities. The noise pollution invoked by the pumps and the boat traffic may seriously disorient the whales or introduce stress, which may complicate the baby's delivery or nursing. The pumps will pull warm water away from the lagoon at the constant rate of 6,600 gallons per second. The precious salinity and temperature of the lagoon that is so vital to the newborn calves would change as currents of cold, less-salty water circulate in from the ocean. Next, the water that is pumped out of the lagoon finds its way into a series of evaporation ponds before it is pumped again into concentration and then crystallization ponds. Altering the land to create expansive, man-made ponds and dikes may drastically alter the rainfall drainage patterns. Lastly, the project calls for a 2km long pier that will lie directly in the whales' migration path. The pier will pose a difficult challenge for the mother whales that are just about to give birth on their way into the lagoon. It will also be a dangerous obstacle for the newborn calves that are just learning to swim on their way out of the lagoon. To add to the whales' difficulties, the pier will be the destination and starting point of numerous ships transporting the salt from the industrial complex. This boat traffic will add more noise and disturbance to the area and potentially expose the whales and other marine life to possible oil spills.

Current Status:

As of now, the Mitsubishi corporation is holding off on building the Salt Works Factory until a formal scientific investigation takes place. The report will include information beyond just the Gray Whale. Local economics and social structure will be studied, and a recommendation will be drafted for the possibility of maintaining the salt works with as little impact to the environment (political and natural) as possible. More information on this approval process is available at http://www.bajasalt.com/

Those that are concerned about this project should voice their questions to the officials listed here.

REFERENCES:

Reynolds, Susan. Dooming a whale's last best birthplace. Audubon, v99, n4 (July-August, 1997): 18.
http://darwin.bio.uci.edu/~sustain/global/sensem/weng297.html
http://whales.magna.com.au/NEWS/sanignacio.html
 

More Information on the Gray Whale, the Lagoons and the Salt Works

OC Register Multimedia Gallery (Hear what a gray whale sounds like!)
Mitubishi's Salt Site (Pro-Salt Works information)
Boycott Mitsubishi Campaign
International Fund for Animal Welfare -- Campaign to Save Laguna Ignacio and the Baja Gray Whale

The gray whale nursery in Laguna San Ignacio
Our letters to officials
December 1997 toxic spill at Laguna Guerrero Negro, Baja California that killed more than 94 endangered sea turtles. (You'll need Adobe's Acrobat Reader TM to read this report. You can download it here.)
The proposed saltworks at Laguna San Ignacio, (a report on the proposal by the Mexican Secretary of the Environment) Spanish version
INE-SEMARNAP Scientific Committee Report
A Corporate Watch Greenwash report on the Mitsubishi saltworks
The Corporate Watch Spring 1998 Greenwash Award to Mitsubishi
Proesteros: A report by Mark Spalding PhD about the proposed saltworks at Laguna San Ignacio.
The UN World Heritage Site in Baja California

Visitors since 27 April 1998: 
Return to Issue Guides