Controversy continues to rage over a geoengineering project intended to boost salmon populations around the islands of Haida Gwaii, BC, by fertilizing the water with iron.
In July, the project, backed by controversial American businessman Russ George, dumped 100 tonnes of iron in the ocean 200 nautical miles from the islands in an attempt to encourage plankton growth and cause a chain reaction, promoting the increase of salmon stocks. An environmentalist group has said that the project violates international agreements and could have a negative impact on the ecosystem. The Council of the Haida Nation denounced the project in a press release.
George’s previous attempts at geoengineering by ocean fertilization, as the CEO of Planktos, Inc., caused him to be banned from the Galapagos and Canary Islands. George also received a warning from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that carrying out his Galapagos project under an American flag would be illegal. In February, the Haida fishing village of Old Massett voted to lend $2.5 million to the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation (HSRC), which employs George as its chief science officer, to use iron fertilization to restore the salmon population. As a side effect, the HSRC expects the plankton to sequester carbon, and they intend to repay the loan by selling carbon credits.
Satellite images confirm that there has been a plankton bloom of 10,000 square kilometres in area, but it is not clear whether this was caused by the iron. The Haida eddies cause a natural plankton bloom every summer and Kenneth Denman, an oceanographer from the University of Victoria, says that this natural cycle could account for much or all of the plankton growing in the area. Denman also criticized the project’s lack of scientific rigour.
Other scientists also had problems with the HSRC’s project. John Cullen, an oceanographer at Dalhousie University, said that it is difficult to know what the ultimate outcome will be, but the possible risks of ocean fertilization, such as deep-water oxygen depletion and unpredictable effects on food webs, are too great. “History is full of examples of ecological manipulations that backfired,” Cullen said to the Guardian.
Victor Smetacek, a marine biologist and the lead author of a paper that suggested iron fertilization could be an effective means of burying carbon, said of the project, “I’m not going to condemn it offhand, but this is just not the way to do this experiment.”
The science of ocean fertilization, both for sequestering carbon and increasing salmon stocks, is still in the preliminary stages. After an iron-rich volcanic eruption in the Aleutian Islands in 2008, salmon populations skyrocketed. But there is not enough data to support a link between the two events. And while Smetacek’s study supports the possibility of using plankton to sequester carbon, at least one other study is less optimistic.
The ETC Group, an organization that monitors technology and ecology, said in a statement that the HSRC project violates both international agreements and Canadian law. The relevant international agreements are the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the London Protocol on the dumping of waste at sea. According to an expert consulted by the journal Science, however, the CBD discourages ocean fertilization but is not binding, while the London Protocol only applies to material intended as waste.
It is not clear at this point whether the project violated Canadian law, though the dump did take place outside of Canadian waters. Environment minister Peter Kent said that Environment Canada did not approve the project, though an article from the Guardian shows that they did at least know about it in advance.
Meanwhile, the Council of the Haida Nation distanced themselves from the project. Guujaaw, the council’s president, told the Guardian, “The village people voted to support what they were told was a ‘salmon enhancement project’ and would not have agreed if they had been told of any potential negative effects or that it was in breach of an international convention.”
The Council released an official statement saying, “The consequences of tampering with nature at this scale are not predictable and pose unacceptable risks to the marine environment. Our people along with the rest of humanity depend on the oceans and cannot leave the fate of the oceans to the whim of the few.”