July 9, 1998, by Gene Kira:
To call the fishery of Mexico's Laguna San Ignacio lagoon in the state of Baja California Sur "pristine" is to turn a blind eye to the destruction that has already occurred there. From a commercial fishing standpoint, the lagoon was wiped out decades ago by gill-netters and divers. By the end of the 1960s, the fish were gone. By the end of the 1980s, the incredibly rich scallop population had been destroyed, leaving behind a wind-blown wasteland of shell middens. All that remains today of the kilometer-long commercial fishing village that once populated the south shore of the lagoon are two very poor fish camps whose subsistence pangueros exit the boca to take what is left on the nearby open Pacific.
While it is very sad to see what has happened to Laguna San Ignacio--and to the rest of Baja California as well--we norte americanos should remember that we are just as guilty. One has only to check the records dating back to about the 1920s to realize the appalling damage we have done to every commercially value species that once lived along our shores.
Now that the fish population of Laguna San Ignacio has likewise been pounded into commercial insignificance, there is a debate today on whether or not there should be a solar salt evaporation facility built on its northern shore.
Two questions are asked: 1. Shall we protect the gray whales that breed in the lagoon during the winter months? 2. Shall we also preserve the illusion of "wilderness" created by the lagoon's remote location and its present lack of human population?
The ultimate resolution to both of these questions probably has little to do with the proposed evaporation facility.
The examples of Scammon's Lagoon and Bahia Magdalena--located north and south of Laguna San Ignacio--demonstrate that gray whales can coexist with humans. At Scammon's Lagoon, there is a large salt evaporation facility of many decades standing, as well as the town of Guerrero Negro which has grown up around it. At Bahia Magdalena there is the good-sized shipping port of San Carlos and the cannery town of Puerto Lopez Mateos. There are plenty of gray whales at these locations, and there are tourist whale-watching operations at all of them. Further, gray whales have made a spectacular comeback since we stopped killing them commercially, and there is no longer a shortage of them.
The question of preserving the wilderness-like "feel" of Laguna San Ignacio is also moot. At both Scammon's Lagoon and Bahia Magdalena, commercial development affects only a minute fraction of the total shoreline. The vast majority of these areas is actually so isolated, it can be unnerving to newcomers. At Laguna San Ignacio, a new salt plant--and even the town that would be associated with it--are in themselves unlikely to have much impact on the overall appearance of the area. If Laguna San Ignacio is "ruined," it will be because of other commercial development, not the salt plant.
It would be aesthetically more pleasing to have the lagoon with no salt plant at all, but who are we to tell the people of Mexico to live without jobs and cars, simply because we wish to visit their nice empty land and take pictures of it? And, how would we San Diegans feel about Mexicans telling us not to build Legoland near Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad, because they would like to enjoy our few remaining open spaces during their vacations?
Certainly, we must protect our gray whales. But the evidence indicates that they can coexist with salt plants, at least to the extent that they do at Scammon's Lagoon. Given their recent increase in numbers, perhaps we can feel that this is one species, at least, that we have done enough for. The whales are doing fine. Perhaps in this case, we can now indulge our concern for those many Mexican families who so desperately need the jobs that this salt plant could provide.
Certainly, we would like to preserve the few open spaces left on earth. But, does a single almost invisible salt plant on the shore of a very remote, very large lagoon do that much additional harm? Solar salt plants are about the least damaging form of industrial production possible. Perhaps in this case, we can see a salt plant simply as a salt plant, and not as a symbol of the overdevelopment we must now live with in our own country.
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