Impact of Last Year’s Rouge Ocean Fertilization Experiment Still Unclear

Abundant fall salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest is helping research group’s uphill battle to regain legitimacy

Last year, the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation (HSRC), a Canadian scientific research group, dumped 100 tons of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean in a known salmon migration route in order to spawn a plankton bloom that would absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Scientists and environmentalists were shocked. Environment Canada investigated the legality of the experiment particularly with regard to potential violations to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and the London Convention. And the media documented the whole sordid affair. It was a mess. But a year later, it’s still not clear whether the experiment did harm or good.

algal bloom off of VancouverPhoto by Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFCHaida Salmon Restoration Corporation says it was trying to see if adding iron to a high-nutrient,
low-chlorophyll cold core ocean eddy situated in the middle of a known salmon migration route
would cause phytoplankton to grow.

We have learned that HSRC is no longer working with controversial Californian Russ George of Planktos Inc., though he apparently remains a shareholder. We have learned that the organization is disputing the validity of an Environment Canada search warrant in court. The group is still under investigation by Environment Canada over the legality of its experiment as it pertains to the London Convention.

Currently Jason McNamee, HSRC director and operations officer is engaging in a long and uphill battle to regain some legitimacy for the group by attending conferences, speaking to a number of groups and organizations, and generally preaching the HSRC gospel in addition to continuing to analyze and compile the research findings. Coincidentally, this past fall the entire west coast of North America was positively chockablock with pink salmon, with some states recording the largest runs ever recorded.

McNamee’s message is this: Oceans matter, but their importance is being overlooked by those battling the climate crisis. According to him, we don’t understand nearly enough about the largest ecosystem on the planet and how it can help fight climate change, and we need to. He would like to see a blue carbon credit program to fund oceanic research projects that provide data and remove carbon from the atmosphere. Makes sense, but how you get there is also part of the equation.

In 2012, McNamee had a plan for just such a project, the aforementioned iron dump. And how he got there made a lot of people very angry, despite McNamee’s claims that it is all about the science.

“It is an ocean research project and we’re trying to understand that ecosystem,” says McNamee. “We had a hypothesis: Does adding iron to a high-nutrient, low-chlorophyll cold core ocean eddy situated in the middle of a known salmon migration route cause phytoplankton to grow, yes or no. And what are the resulting environmental benefits or costs.”

In July 2012, HSRC proceeded with its experiment and fertilized a 5,000 square kilometre slice of the Pacific Ocean 200 miles west of the British Columbia coast.

The only permit granted to the organization was from the small town of Masset in Haida Gwaii off the coast of Northern British Columbia. HSRC was criticized by scientists and environmentalists and dragged through the proverbial mud by media for defying convention and operating without regard for international regulations set down by the UN. Even the UN weighed in on the issue.

McNamee admits, in retrospect, that it might not have been the best way to proceed, but says it was necessary to operate the way they did.

“We had a very limited budget and you know, there are two things,” says McNamee. “One, the village of Masset went through a plebiscite vote on the project and went and issued … resolutions to enable the project and they also issued us permits. That’s a real and valid way of doing things. However, as you suggest, it didn’t stop the press from going all nuts on us and everything. The other thing is there really is no process by which to get a permit (through the United Nations). It doesn’t really exist.

“If we had gone that route, we’d have used up most of our budget trying to figure out how to get a permit,” he continues. “We never would have got it done at all.”

For the better part of 2013, McNamee has been dealing with the fallout by speaking about the HSRC fertilization project at everything from international conferences such as Oceans 13 in San Diego as well as local community meetings in small towns such as Squamish, BC attempting to explain why they did what they did and why more experiments of this nature are needed in the future.

Recently, McNamee ventured to the Warsaw Climate Change Conference (COP19) in Poland where he was surprised to see oceans almost entirely ignored.

“In the whole two weeks in Warsaw, there were only two events in which the ocean was mentioned,” McNamee explains. “An ocean acidification side event with maybe 60 people…. The other event where the ocean was mentioned was a panel event at the University of Warsaw on the nexus of climate change, governance, and gender. The only reason the ocean came up in that panel was because I was on it.”

McNamee is passionate when he speaks about what he calls the largest ecosystem on the planet and why it cannot be ignored if we are going to make any headway in tackling climate change.

Part of his defense of the HSRC’s iron-fertilization experiment is the lack of information demonstrated at COP19 and by those who criticized his project. Critics suggest his experiment could have resulted in any number of harmful or potentially devastating consequences, such as produce toxic algal blooms or increase ocean acidification, but, according to McNamee, there is no evidence of any of the proposed consequences that were bandied about in the media.

The campaign of public engagement and education seems to be helping in the PR department, potentially smoothing the way for further experiments in the future. Parting ways with Russ George who – based on his past exploits in areas such as the Galapagos Islands where he planned a similar experiment in 2007 before it was shut down, and has long been a lightning rod for controversy – also helps. But what has really helped alleviate some of the scorn HSRC has had to endure is the aforementioned massive pink salmon runs from Oregon right up the coast to Alaska.

Although there is no way to prove that this particular iron fertilization project helped raise the pink salmon numbers, it isn’t hurting McNamee’s case.

“I’ll go on record as saying that coincidence does not equal causality,” McNamee says. “I don’t believe in any way, shape or form that we definitely contributed to that salmon run. The question I have for salmon experts is this: ‘What changed in the ocean in 2012, the year prior, that had the potential to contribute to this massive return?’ The answer is I don’t know, but certainly our project may have contributed.”

In McNamee’s ideal scenario, an experiment such as his would provide vital research data on how our oceans can aid in climate change solutions. In addition, sequestering carbon in the seas would provide a revenue source for further projects. And, if the rebound in the salmon runs is indeed connected to the iron sulfate dumping, it could help local communities by promoting healthy fisheries. (Read my previous post about this here.)

But all that is a long way off.

With regard to the current experiment, there will be no carbon offsets because HSRC has yet to “quantify in a verifiable manner what that volume [of carbon sequestration] is.” Though he hasn’t shut the door completely, McNamee says there is currently no trading scheme that would accept this type of offset.

“We are working on alternative solutions, but that requires the sort of things I’ve been doing: talking to people, going to COP19, speaking at UBC, talking to governments, and other markets that might have an interest in purchasing blue carbon,” says McNamee. “But we always knew we were going to have to invent this stuff.”

Would HSRC like to do further testing in the future? Sure. But currently, McNamee is still busy poring over all the data from the 2012 experiment and hoping to make it public in the future.

“I’m working on making the data available,” he says, before refusing to go on the record about what is holding up that process. “We need open data and open discussion or there will never be a reasonable solution. The ‘us against them’ thing doesn’t serve anybody. There is massive political and social value to making that data public.”

Are HSRC renegades or groundbreakers? So far, a bit of both, but this story is far from over.

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