The ocean fertilization experiment that occurred this summer off the coast of British Columbia has generated intense controversy over the prospect of a rogue eco-vigilante engaging in geoengineering — that is, the manipulation of ecosystems to counteract the greenhouse effect. The experiment, in which more than 100 metric tons of iron were dumped into the Pacific Ocean, is likely to be the center of attention at UN talks occurring this week to discuss an international treaty to govern geoengineering experiments. Global condemnation of the experiment has been harsh and swift.
Photo by Hardo Miller
In a post at The New Yorker, science writer Michael Specter said the experiment “was deplorable, premature, and violated several international laws and United Nations covenants.”
As this publication has noted, geoengineering is dangerous business. But lost amid all the hullabaloo is the fact that the experiment had a second purpose: to investigate whether ocean fertilization can increase fish stocks. On a planet facing decreasing wild fish populations, this is important research. Unfortunately, all of the condemnation that resulted from the geoengineering scheme might make it the last large experiment like that for a while.
An outfit called the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation was responsible for iron dumping. The company is apparently a partnership between California businessman Russ George — who founded a geoengeering company called Planktos — and the First Nation community of the Village of Old Massett on Haida Gwaii, an island off the coast of BC. John Disney, the economic development officer for the Village of Old Massett, is no longer talking to the media. “Due to the total assassination of the character and credibility of an entire Haida community by the international and national press, we have terminated all contact with the media,” he wrote to me when asked for an interview. “I hope you understand this decision.”
But a close look at the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation’s website suggests that geoengineering is only part of the story.
According to a press kit released on October 19, the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation (HSRC) started studying the open ocean about 300 kilometers west of Haida Gwaii in the fall of 2011. During the summer of 2012, the group dispersed 120 tons of iron dust to create a phytoplankton boom that would coincide with the salmon feeding cycle. Satellite images confirm that the iron dumping created a plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometers.
The idea was to help to ensure more young salmon survive and return to spawn two years later. Salmon is the backbone of the economy on Haida Gwaii, as it is throughout coastal British Columbia. According to HSRC, “the underlying basis of this work has been to enhance salmon stocks in Canadian waters. The jury is still out as to whether this will enhance salmon populations. The proof of this test will be in the return of the sockeye salmon to the watersheds around Haida Gwaii in 2014 and subsequent years.”
The experiment was based on a natural precedent. In 2008, a volcanic eruption in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands dumped iron into the waters of the northern Pacific Ocean. In 2010 (the year the young salmon from 2008 would return) the salmon run in British Columbia was off the charts. An estimated 40 million fish returned to their spawning grounds that year; only one million were expected.
“The phytoplankton in the Gulf of Alaska are all very small flagellates which lead up to a food chain supportive of jellyfish and not salmon,” explains Dr. Tim Parsons, an oceanographer and professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia. “However, sometimes large phytoplankton are produced in quantity by some natural events which add iron to the Gulf. This produces a bloom of diatoms which are the clover of the sea for most of the world’s pelagic fisheries. Thus iron dumping from the volcano in 2008 produced a diatom bloom which coincided with the migration of young sockeye from the Fraser into the ocean. The Haida Gwaii dump may have simulated this effect, but we will not know until 2014.”
When asked what he thought of the HSRC ocean fertilization experiment, Parsons called it “unique” and “risky.”
And therein lies the rub. In a way, ocean fertilization to encourage plankton blooms and boost fish populations isn’t all that different from terrestrial pasture management in which certain grasses are encouraged to feed cows or sheep. At least, that’s how the First Nations of Haida Gwaii see it. The HSRC refers to the study area as “ocean pastures,” stating: “Ocean pastures are much like pastures and ranges found on land; they are complex ecological communities of plants and animals however the ‘grass’ of our ocean pasture is phyto-plankton.”
The difference is that our understanding of aquatic ecosystems is less exact that our knowledge of terrestrial ones. The volcanic eruption is one theory among many to explain the record-setting run, writes Kenneth Denman, an oceanographer with the University of Victoria in British Columbia, in the American Association for the Advancement of Science magazine.
Other organizations have tried different approaches to the idea of ocean fertilization. An Australian group called the Ocean Nourishment Corporation (ONC) is currently undertaking oceanographic modeling of prospective demonstration sites. Although the ONC isn’t proposing iron fertilization, but a different and similar method of “enhancing the marine food chain” by adding macronutrients that replicate “deep ocean nutrient upwelling.”
But the basic goal is the same. “Without an increase in wild fish productivity, the present level of fishing is not sustainable,” ONC founder Ian S.F. Jones, an adjunct professor at the University of Sydney, has written. “Ocean nourishment promises to be a least a partial solution to the problem of feeding the world’s increasing population by providing additional low cost protein.” ONC, in its literature, describe the situation as mimicking that of land-based farming that many years ago “embraced technologies that increased crop yields.”
The idea of using ocean fertilization to increase fish populations (and/or remove CO2 from the atmosphere) isn’t new. The late oceanographer John Martin first started studying it more than two decades ago. He is famously quoted as saying, “Give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age.”
According to a UNESCO report on ocean fertilization, there have been 13 small-scale ocean fertilization studies. “Each affected a few hundred square kilometers for a few weeks, on a similar scale (and with similar consequences) to natural blooms of phyto-plankton,” the report states. With the carbon offsets market providing a powerful lure for oceanic iron dumping, UNESCO initiated a study on the effectiveness of ocean fertilization and its risks, which it in January 2011.
The study’s chief focus related to the potential of ocean fertilization for global carbon-removal. It found that “although uncertainties still remain, the amount of carbon that might be taken out of circulation through this technique on a long-term basis (decades to centuries) would seem small in comparison to fossil-fuel emissions.”
But, with regards to encouraging fish stocks, the report states: “Increases in ocean productivity following large-scale ocean fertilizations might provide additional benefits from a human perspective, since growth enhancement of fish stocks might result, increasing the yield of exploitable fisheries. If this were the main objective, the fertilization application would be on a regional, rather than global basis, with a clear need to demonstrate commercial cost-effectiveness. However, the science is still highly uncertain, the supposed benefits have yet to be demonstrated, and ‘ownership’ issues for open ocean fishery enhancement have yet to be resolved.”
The UNESCO report outlines potential risks, including “impacts not only locally, e.g. risk of toxic algal blooms, but also far removed in space and time. Impact assessments need to include the possibility of such ‘far-field’ effects on biological productivity, sub-surface oxygen levels, biogas production and ocean acidification.”
Clearly, farming the seas through ocean nourishment or ocean fertilization shouldn’t be taken lightly. But neither should it necessarily be taken off the table. While geoengineering seems to present mostly risks, small scale sea-farming could present important opportunities. Unfortunately, Russ George’s ill-considered experiment — and his apparent manipulation of a First Nations community for his own ends — might have thrown out the good with the bad.