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In the 19th century the Pacific Gray Whale was nearly hunted to extinction when their products were in high demand. At the turn of the century, there existed only a few thousand of these precious whales. Soon after, the whales were placed onto the endangered species list where they were under the heavy protection of numerous national laws and international treaties. In 1993 the number of Gray Whales climbed to a miraculous 21,000 and by the end of 1994 the Pacific Gray Whale became the first mammal to be removed from the endangered species list. A few months after its removal from the endangered species list, the primary breeding and calving grounds of the Gray Whale, located in Baja California, was chosen by the Mitsubishi Corporation to become the worlds largest salt harvesting center.
The gray whale is a migratory species that spends the majority of its summers feeding in the Arctic Ocean near Alaska. Every winter thousands of gray whales, many of them pregnant, leave the hostile waters of Alaska and travel 4000 miles to the warm and salty lagoons of Mexico’s Baja California Coast. They cluster around 3 primary lagoons in which they stay until late April, however only one of them remains unmarred by human activity. This last remaining refuge, Laguna San Ignacio, is now in great danger of becoming invaded by the corporate world. The high salinity of the waters provide many benefits for the whales. Because of this high salt content, the whales become much more buoyant and expend much less energy remaining afloat. This proves to be very beneficial for the newborn calves that are just learning to swim and nurse. Another benefit the lagoons of Baja California possess is the warm water temperature in comparison to the chilly waters of the Arctic. This warmth provides heat to the newborns and prevents excessive losses of body temperature, thereby conserving energy that would otherwise be required to maintain a constant body temperature. Also, the seclusion of the lagoons from the dangers of the open seas, such as high waves created by storms, makes it a safer place for the newborn calves, as mother and child are less likely to become separated. These benefits substantially increase the survival rates of newborns as well as provide a more comfortable nursing environment. However the country of Mexico as well as the Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan project to make millions by the development and expansion of the salt factory, Exportadora de Sal.
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In 1988 a refuge was created for the whales by President Miguel de la Madrid. The biosphere reserve, Vizcaino Region, spanned 6.2 million acres and included all three of the lagoons. Not only does this area comprise of the lagoons, but it also is a habitat for 14 different plant species and 72 different animals species that would be threatened without the reserve. Additionally, thousands of other animals and 35,000 Mexicans also occupy this region. Within this region the Expotadora de Sal has already made its presence felt. Although this region is protected, the Mexican government had allowed the company to develop within the other two lagoons, Ojo de Liebre and Guerrero Negro. The bioshpere is now in danger of losing its final lagoon to the salt industry and this is a great concern of the National Institute of Ecology, which claims that the changing of the habitat will drive the whales away from their destination and eventually to extinction. While this view is supported by environmentalists, the international groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, World Wildlife Fund, International Fund for Animal Welfare, RARE Center for Tropical Conservation and Mexico’s Ecology Minister Gabriel Quadri, many groups feel that creating jobs and increasing the economy is of more significance than the salvation of the whale’s habitats. Mexico’s Commerce Minister, Herminio Blanco and local politicians such as Governer Guillermo back the expansion of the Exportadora de Sal and claim that all of the past saltworks have neither disrupted the whales nor harmed the environment. The evidence that they have to support their claims is convincing, however the future cannot be predicted if the last and final lagoon is altered and no alternative lagoons for the whales exists.
Exportadora de Sal is 51% owned by the Mexican government and 49% by the Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan. The Japanese government supports Mitsubishi’s proposed expansion since the majority of Japan’s salt is already produced and imported from Mexico. Past history is an indication of the apathy the Japanese government has for the Gray Whales. In 1986 the International Whaling Commission voted on a moratorium on commercial whaling, which was most opposed by the Japanese. Nevertheless, Japan was able to find a loophole in the ban and used the whaling as a "research" activity which enabled them to kill as many whales as they desired. In 1989 alone, 1,100 tons of whale meat was a "by-product" of their research. Japan’s lack of concern for the welfare of the whales is a clear implication that their desire is simply that of profit and not that of environmental interest. The future of the whale lies in the hands of the Mexican government and whether they will choose pesos or whales, commercial development or environmental protection.
In order for the development to be halted, international intervention is required. The United States is doing what it can to preserve the whale’s habitat, but without greater international attention, it is likely that the project will proceed. The recovery of the gray whale is perhaps one of the greatest success stories in the history of protecting endangered species, but that success will be short-lived if Mexico allows the whale’s final sanctuary, Laguna San Ignacio, to be controlled by the Mitsubishi Corporation.
Clifford, Frank. "Future of Whales’ Lagoon Grows Murky." Los Angeles Times 13 March 1997: A1, A26, A27.
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