Scientists warn iron dump could seriously harm ocean
Atlantic salmon swim in a fish farm pen in this October 2008 file photo. (AP / Robert F. Bukaty and Jason Leighton, File).
James Keller and Keven Drews, The Canadian Press
Published Saturday, October 20, 2012 11:48AM PDT
A tiny First Nations village that poured iron into the deep Pacific Ocean in an attempt to boost salmon stocks insisted Friday the project was legal and safe, but the community's explanations did little to convince skeptical scientists, including an American researcher who helped pioneer the theories behind the controversial experiment.
The village of Old Massett, B.C., in the Haida Gwaii islands, spent $2 million to dump more than 100 tonnes of iron sulfate and iron oxide into waters just outside Canadian jurisdiction in a process known as iron fertilization.
The goal was to create a plankton bloom that would feed salmon while also sequestering carbon dioxide, but the project has drawn criticism from the Canadian and American governments, environmental groups, aboriginal leaders and scientists.
Ken Rea, chief councillor for the village of Old Massett, told a news conference Friday the community believes the iron dump will be money well spent, and he hopes subsequent research will allow his community to improve salmon returns and make money through carbon credits.
"We did our due diligence: we looked at the science, the legalities, the practicalities. We consulted and we implemented," Rea told a news conference in Vancouver.
"This is about the fish," he said in an interview later. "This is about providing sustainable opportunities for our future generations."
The case has raised a number of questions, from the legalities of dumping iron into the ocean, particularly in international waters, to the potential effects on the surrounding marine environment.
Rea and other proponents attempted to cast it as a relatively small experiment that will have nothing but positive effects on the ocean. Russ George, the American businessman who oversaw the experiment and has been pushing similar projects for years, was not present and was unavailable for an interview.
Kenneth Coale's research at California State University's Moss Landing Marine Laboratories helped pioneer the theories behind iron fertilization. He said the experiment appeared to ignore scientific standards and risked causing serious damage to the surrounding environment.
"One cannot overstate the threat that increased atmospheric CO2 poses to this planet and our society, but one cannot overestimate the threat to the marine environment through iron fertilization attempts to control that CO2," Coale said in an interview.
"I think it's a legitimate question to ask whether iron fertilization could become part of a portfolio of strategies to remove carbon from the atmosphere. So far, our scientific results would not suggest that is a good strategy."
Coale was among a group of researchers who pioneered what's known as the "iron hypothesis."
The hypothesis says low levels of iron in the ocean can lead to a lack of plankton -- which, in turn, leaves more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and causes the planet to warm. An increase in iron -- and plankton -- has the opposite effect, drawing CO2 from the atmosphere and cooling the planet.
Coale said experiments with iron fertilization in the open ocean have produced a long list of problems, including algae that generate neurotoxins, the creation of greenhouses gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, and depleted levels of oxygen below the ocean surface.
Two scientists from the University of British Columbia, both experts in ocean plankton, were in the audience for Friday's news conference and questioned both the safety and the quality of the Old Massett experiment.
One of them, Maite Maldonado, criticized the researchers for not releasing enough information about what they were up to, and she noted there is little evidence to support the claim that the iron dump will help salmon stocks.
"I think there is no evidence to support that the decline in the salmon stocks is linked to a decline in phytoplankton biomass," she said in an interview.
"I think we should be very concerned about the long-term consequences of something like this."
The experiment was run by the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp., an entity owned by Old Massett. The corporation's president, John Disney, denied allegations Friday the experiment was conducted without properly informing the Canadian and American governments.
Disney insisted the corporation was open with what it was doing, even eliciting the help of government agencies from both sides of the border. He suggested government spokespeople who have made such allegations simply weren't aware of what others in their departments were doing.
"The trouble is, that level doesn't know what's going on at this level," he said in an interview.
Environment Canada has confirmed officials for the department met with representatives from the corporation and informed them about disposal at sea legislation, but the department said it never received an application for ocean fertilization. The department has said it has launched an investigation.
The U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which provided research buoys to the project, has claimed the agency was misled and was never told they would be used for ocean fertilization.
The Haida Salmon Restoration Corp. faced a new source of criticism Friday: the Haida Nation. Old Massett is a member of the Haida Nation, whose president and hereditary chiefs council issued a statement criticizing the project.
"The consequences of tampering with nature at this scale are not predictable and pose unacceptable risks to the marine environment," the statement said.
"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."