ONCE nearly hunted to extinction, the gray whale owes its stunning comeback this century in part to Mexico's insistence on strictly guarding the Baja California coastal waters where the whales breed and calve.
But now Mexico is seeking to extract salt from a protected lagoon that is a prime destination for the whales in their annual migration from arctic seas.
Together with Mitsubishi Corporation, the government proposes to build one of the world's largest salt-evaporation plants in a national preserve on the Baja Peninsula.
Environmentalists contend that the proposed $100-million saltworks could forever damage the whales' winter sanctuary, known as San Ignacio Lagoon, one of only a few whale nurseries in Mexico.
Critics say the proposed plant will harm a protected lagoon. Officials and their Japanese partner deny they will disturb it.
"It's very important because this is the most pristine and best-conserved lagoon," says Homero Aridjis, a poet who is president of the Group of 100, Mexico's most prominent environmental group. "There would be a complete disturbance of the place where the whales give birth to the calves."
Bruised by such charges, the government and the Japanese company in June placed two advertisements in the New York Times and top Mexican newspapers defending their plans and depicting themselves as longtime friends of cetaceans. Mexico owns 51 percent of the company that would build the plant, Exporter of Salt Inc., and Mitsubishi owns the rest.
Juan Bremer, general director of Exporter of Salt, denies that his company's project would harm the lagoon. "There's been a lot of distortion and information that's not correct - that we're going to damage the environment and the whales," Mr. Bremer says. "It's time to clarify. We are not going to do anything if it's not absolutely 100 percent compatible with the environment."
Gray whales are familiar to many on the US Pacific Coast who are thrilled by the sight of their annual 10,000-mile journeys. Scientists estimate there are more than 20,000 gray whales, most of which were born off the Baja coast.
In the 19th century, whalers dubbed their prey "devilfish," and nearly destroyed the species. Estimates of the gray whale population in the eastern Pacific at the turn of the century were only a few thousand. In 1910, according to the government, Mexico became one of the first countries to offer the gray whale some protection. In 1946, international authorities finally banned the commercial hunting of gray whales.
Now the whales are central players in a controversy that will test Mexico's commitment to upholding its own environmental laws. The San Ignacio Lagoon is part of Mexico's 6.5-million-acre Vizcaino Desert Biosphere Reserve.
Many hundreds of whales calve and nurse in and around the lagoon every year from roughly January to March. Baby whales take advantage of the shallow waters - to bolster their protective blubber and practice swimming in anticipation of their long journey back to Alaska.
The salt-company proposal, in the works since 1990, was brought to public attention this year.
"This is a first real test case," says Serge Dedina, a University of Texas doctoral student in geography who is writing his dissertation on the history and politics of gray whale conservation. "The Mexican government hasn't had any real development proposals before that could radically alter those areas. If they're really committed to the gray whale, they can't build this project."
What makes the proposal doubly unusual is that the Mexican government is at odds with itself. An agency that enforces environmental law opposes the project, while another agency in charge of economic development champions it.
In February, the National Ecology Institute, which has jurisdiction over development in the country's environmental preserves, rejected the project on the grounds that it did not sufficiently protect the lagoon. A spokesman for the institute said in an interview that it stands by the opinion.
But since February, the powerful Mexican Commerce Secretary, Herminio Blanco, has campaigned to reverse the decision. In the pro-development ads in late June, Exporter of Salt promised to submit a new proposal with input from recognized conservation experts.
The plan is to build a one-mile canal from the lagoon, pumping water continuously to clay-lined evaporation beds. Wind and sun would produce first brine, then crystallized salt - an estimated 6 million tons a year. A conveyor belt would transfer the salt to a pier 15 miles from the mouth of the lagoon. The pier would extend more than a mile into a Pacific bay also frequented by whales. The salt would then be shipped around the world for use in food processing, agriculture, de-icing, and a range of industrial applications.
Bremer, the salt company executive, points to an existing saltworks 50 miles north of San Ignacio as evidence that his company knows how to live peaceably with the whales.
There, next to the 300-square-mile Ojo de Liebre Lagoon, Exporter of Salt has operated a plant for three decades that also produces millions of tons of salt a year. In that time, the company says, the number of gray whale visits to Ojo de Liebre has doubled.
Environmentalists doubt the company's whale counts. They also contend that the two lagoons cannot be compared because Ojo de Liebre is broader and deeper than San Ignacio.
Pumping water from the smaller lagoon, they say, will cause turbulence, potentially reducing salinity and temperature in the shallow portions that shelter newborns.
"The nests of the whales will be destroyed," Mr. Aridjis said. "It's like if you have a bed with a woman giving birth and [the bed's] turning all the time."