Oceans for Youth Home
Sign-up for the Oceans for Youth News     

Mitsubishi Corporation Threatens Gray Whale Sanctuary


Story by Marty Snyderman
Photos by Norbert Wu

There was no doubt that the speaker was totally committed to the cause. I do not recall his name, but in my mind's eye I can still see his image in the videotape he showed, in which a crew of four men in a rubber boat had positioned themselves between a pod of whales and a much larger Russian whaling vessel. Yelling up to whalers who were leaning over the railing on the bow of their ship, the gang of conservationists in the raft promised that the whalers would be forced to run over them if they continued the hunt. It was clearly a case of David versus Goliath. In this case, David was a protectionist group standing up for the lives of the whales they wanted to save, and they were doing whatever they could to stand tall against their Goliath, a whaling ship from a superpower in international waters.

Despite the fact that the only weapon available to the evening's speaker was the power of the pen, the worldwide media attention the confrontation might create, it was quite clear that the zealots were willing to risk their lives to protect the whales. In this particular instance, the speaker told the audience, the whale hunters relented, but he was quick to add that on a daily basis confrontations like these were needed all around the world in order to protect whales. Then the speaker asked for financial contributions and volunteers who were willing to risk their lives to join the cause.

I couldn't really tell who gave or how much, or who if anyone signed up, but my best guess is that while many in the audience admired the speaker and supported his cause, at most the night yielded a few dollars and no volunteers.

The setting where this presentation took place was an auditorium on a university campus in San Diego almost 25 years ago. Two weeks earlier I had been in San Ignacio Lagoon, one of a series of lagoons along the Pacific coast of Mexico's Baja peninsula where California gray whales go each winter to calve and mate. Once hunted to the point of near-extinction, California gray whales have made an impressive comeback. Each year thousands of these filter-feeding behemoths migrate from their feeding grounds in Alaska's Bering Sea to the waters off Baja. Without fail, the sight of these magnificent whales thrills whale watchers from all over the world who come to witness the migration.

I had seen gray whales in the waters of southern California, but that was my first trip to the lagoons. We had arrived around midnight on a windless night. I walked down to the water's edge with my pal Howard Hall, and to our amazement we could hear the loud "whooshes" the whales made as they inhaled and exhaled. The sounds were so clear and so loud we would have sworn the whales were only a few feet off the beach. I couldn't wait until daybreak.

The next morning, we got up with the sun. To my amazement, the lagoon was huge. Even though I could still hear the blows quite clearly, the closest whale was nowhere close to shore. In some ways I was disappointed, but I was excited about being in such a vast and pristine wilderness. For the next week Howard and I enjoyed sights of mothers and calves frolicking on the surface, while males battled each other for the right to court the females. We watched pelicans, frigate birds and ospreys on the surface when the wind blew and the whales slipped out of sight. It was hard to imagine a setting that felt more like a wilderness, an area less impacted by humankind.


A quarter-century later, the world is a very different place. As they have for thousands of years, California gray whales still make an annual trek to the lagoons of Baja. But at the turn of the millennium, the wilderness is being invaded by a corporate giant that sees its riches not as whales and wilderness, but as money to be made from salt taken from the sea.

In a joint venture with the Mexican government, the Japanese-based Mitsubishi Corporation is attempting to develop a massive industrial saltworks next to San Ignacio Lagoon. If the plans go forward, the salt will be extracted from the sea and exported around the world, with Japan being a primary market. A variety of environmental groups, including the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, are outraged by the environmental threat to this, the last undisturbed gray whale nursery in the world.

"Don't Buy It!"

Today, the response of the environmental groups is far more sophisticated than it was 25 years ago. Instead of depending upon the courage and commitment of a few people, environmental organizations have instituted a worldwide campaign intended to hit the corporate giant where it hurts the most, directly in its pocketbook. The NRDC and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have launched the "Mitsubishi. Don't Buy It!" campaign aimed at forcing the multinational giant to abandon its plans by using the economic power of consumers.

The message of the multimedia campaign is for consumers worldwide not to purchase Mitsubishi-made automobiles, televisions and other products until the company pays heed to the worldwide outcry against the saltworks plan. The campaign is being waged through mailings, advertisements in movie theaters, on billboards, via the Internet and on television.

Environmentalists opposing Mitsubishi's efforts point out that the salt factory would convert 116 square miles/300 sq. km of San Ignacio Lagoon's tidal flats into a wasteland of evaporation ponds, supplied by giant engines which will pump 6,000 gallons/23,000 l of water per second out of the lagoon. They fear that the reduced salinity of the water will greatly threaten the survival of many gray whale calves. In addition, scientific calculations claim that the ponds would produce 1 billion gallons/3,800,000,000 l of deadly brine waste each year, and many oceangoing tankers will dock at a mile-long pier, introducing the risk of commercial pollutants and potential oil spills to the delicate ecosystems.

Scientific Support

A collection of 34 prominent scientists, including whale authority Roger Payne, Dr. Sylvia Earle, Stephen Jay Gould, Sir Andrew Huxley, Edward O. Wilson and nine Nobel laureates, stated that the saltworks plan poses "an unacceptable risk" to the lagoon's biological resources, maintaining that the nursery area is critical to the survival of California gray whales.

Last summer, with the support of these and other scientists, international parliamentarians passed a resolution requesting that Mitsubishi abandon its plans to develop what would become the world's largest salt factory. In addition, close to 1 million people from many nations have sent letters of protest. (In the September 1997 issue, Dive Training presented an overview of the developing conflict.)

To date, Mitsubishi's response has been to ignore world and scientific opinion, and to step up a public relations campaign intended to discredit its opposition. It is important to note that Mitsubishi is not acting alone. The Mexican Ministry of Trade is a partner in the project.

California gray whales are no longer recognized as an endangered species, having made a remarkable comeback. This is both the good and the bad news. The good news is that the threatened status indicates a lesser immediate threat of extinction. The bad news is that the designation of "threatened," as opposed to "endangered," works against the whales in this instance because it appears potentially easier for the salt factory developers to push their cause through the Mexican court system.

Currently, Mitsubishi operates a saltworks in Guerrero Negro, not far from San Ignacio. Scientists working for Mitsubishi claim that this operation has not had any negative impact on the environment, and that the scenario will be the same in San Ignacio. Astonishingly, this claim was first made only a matter of days after a study conducted by Mexico's Attorney General for the Environment revealed close to 300 violations of 22 laws at the facility. The violations included one incident that led to the deaths of 94 sea turtles due to the spillage of toxic brine wastes. All species of sea turtles are endangered. The study was done only after local fishermen tipped off Mexico's Attorney general for the Environment.

Other scientific reports show that the Guerrero Negro saltworks has disrupted gray whale migration patterns, dumped combustible fluids and batteries into the water, and destroyed vital bird nesting habitat. The fight for world opinion centers around which scientists seem most credible and whether or not the environmentalist groups are able to gain sufficient public support around the world.

United Nations Support

In addition to the "Don't Buy It!" campaign, the United Nations World Heritage Committee has been petitioned by the protectionists to enter the fray. The committee has been asked to place San Ignacio Lagoon on the list of World Heritage Sites "In Danger." The "In Danger" designation would further turn up the heat on Mitsubishi and stall its plans. The lagoon is already part of a larger whale sanctuary that has been designated as a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve. The issue of "In Danger" status is now being studied by committee representatives.

Perhaps the argument for preserving San Ignacio Lagoon and avoiding the risks introduced by establishing what is potentially the world's largest saltworks was best expressed by Homero Aridjis, a member of the Group of 100, an organization of activists and artists who are among the most vocal protectors of Mexico's environment. After being asked his thoughts about comments made by representatives from Mitsubishi, in which they claimed there was nothing special about San Ignacio Lagoon, he said:

"If you are a lover of nature and you are in Laguna San Ignacio and see the whales, and look out at the beauty of the lagoon, you experience the same emotion as a lover of art does in the Sistine Chapel looking at Michelangelo's frescoes. It arouses a similar spiritual emotion. Now, if you talk to people in the Western world about destroying the Sistine Chapel, they will tell you that this is a madness, a kind of barbarism.

"When you experience the beauty of San Ignacio Lagoon, you begin to see its destruction in that lightÉ. There are certain things in life for which there is simply no possible trade-off. For example, you cannot exchange the value of the gray whales for a commodity as trivial as industrial salt to be used in Japan's factories and on its roads. For a symbol as powerful as the gray whale, that is simply an unacceptable sacrifice. We must preserve them as they are."

Send an e-mail letter to: Ambassador Koichirio Matsuura, President, United Nations World Heritage Committee (wh-info@unesco.org) requesting that the Whale Sanctuary be designated as a World Heritage Site "In Danger," a designation critical to the preservation of a saltworks-free lagoon.

For More Info...

Log on to The National Resources Defense Council's Web site at www.nrdc.org.