Undisclosed large scale ocean fertilisation off Canada’s coast contravenes international conventions and places important oceans ecosystems and species at risk

By Magdalena Muir, EUCC Advisory Board

Russ George in collaboration with partners dumped around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean as part of a geoengineering scheme off the west coast of  Canada in July 2012. Satellite images appear to confirm the claim that the iron has spawned an artificial plankton or algal bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometres. The intention is for the plankton to absorb carbon dioxide and then sink to the ocean bed – a geo-engineering technique known as  ocean fertilisation. The iron dump took place without prior public disclosure from a fishing boat in an eddy 200 nautical miles west of the islands of  Haida Gwaii, one of the world’s most celebrated, diverse ecosystems.

Yellow and brown colours show relatively high concentrations of chlorophyll in August 2012, after iron sulphate was dumped into the Pacific Ocean as part of a controversial geoengineering scheme. Photograph: Giovanni/Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center/NASA

The Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, a private partnership funded by the Old Massett Village Council of the Haida First Nation,  provided more than $1 million into the dumping project. The president of the Haida Nation Guujaaw said the village was told the dump would environmentally benefit the ocean, which is crucial to their livelihood and culture. “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,” Guujaaw said.

International legal experts say Mr George’s project contravened the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)  and London Convention on Prevention of Marine Pollution from the Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (the London Convention), which both prohibit for-profit ocean fertilisation activities. This ocean dumping of iron would have been illegal in Canada if it has occurred in Canada’s waters without prior authorization under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999.

Mr George had previously tried to conduct large-scale commercial dumps of iron near the Galapagos and Canary Islands which led to his vessels being banned from those ports by the Ecuadorean governments. The US Environmental Protection Agency had warned Mr George that flying a US flag for his Galapagos project would violate US laws, and his prior activities contributed to the UN conventions limiting ocean fertilization.

There is scientific debate as to whether ocean fertilization can sequester carbon in the oceans over the long term, and concern about whether it can irreparably harm ocean ecosystems, produce toxic tides and oxygen starved waters, or worsen ocean acidification. Possible effects such as deep water oxygen depletion, and alternation of distant nutrient cycles and food webs make it questionable. There has been one experiment conducted in 2004, and subsequently reported on in 2012,  that suggested ocean fertilization done in certain circumstances might have some positive effect.

In February 2004, researchers involved in the European Iron Fertilization Experiment (EIFEX) fertilized 167 square kilometres of the Southern Ocean with several tonnes of iron sulphate. For 37 days, the German research vessel Polarstern monitored the bloom and demise of single-cell algae or plankton in the iron-limited but otherwise nutrient-rich ocean region. This experiment was done on a small scale in an isolated region of the Southern Ocean, and with the open and transparent participation of research institutes and scientists, and prior to the establishment of these UN convention which prohibit this ocean fertilization. .Eight years later in July 2012, a re- analysis of the EIFEX experiment in Nature News stated that carbon was sequestered in this experiment.

Information sources: