Issue Guide: Will the Mitsubishi Salt facility hurt
the gray whales in Laguna San Ignacio?
Artwork By Richard Ellis
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Reynolds, Susan. Dooming a whale's last best birthplace. Audubon,
v99, n4 (July-August, 1997): 18.
More Information on the Gray Whale, the Lagoons
and the Salt Works
Register Multimedia Gallery (Hear what a gray whale sounds like!)
Mitubishi's Salt Site (Pro-Salt
International Fund for Animal Welfare -- Campaign to Save Laguna Ignacio and the Baja Gray Whale
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.)
proposed saltworks at Laguna San Ignacio, (a report on the proposal
by the Mexican Secretary of the Environment) Spanish
Scientific Committee Report
Watch Greenwash report on the Mitsubishi saltworks
Corporate Watch Spring 1998 Greenwash Award to Mitsubishi
A report by Mark Spalding PhD about the proposed saltworks at Laguna San
UN World Heritage Site in Baja California
Visitors since 27 April 1998:
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