Haida Gwaii: 'We have created life out there'

Iron-dust trial to foster sea life in B.C. waters arouses hope, horror

A controversial experiment that entailed dumping 100 tonnes of iron-laden dust into the ocean off Haida Gwaii has spawned a 10,000-square-kilometre plankton bloom. While organizers in Old Massett are hailing the geoengineer-ing trial as a success, scientists and climatologists are horrified.

The idea of sprinkling iron in the sea to promote the growth of phytoplankton came from California businessman Russ George.

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Scientists are worried about side effects such as ocean acidification — George's vessels were barred from ports by the Spanish and Ecuadorean governments after he attempted to dump iron in the ocean near the Canary and Galapagos Islands.

George claims the plankton will absorb carbon dioxide, opening the door to selling carbon credits.

That's what the Old Mas-sett village council and economic development officer John Disney are counting on. More than $2 million has been borrowed for the project from village reserve funds through the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp.

Disney, who has shepherded the project through the council and a village vote, said carbon credit sales will start as soon as the data has been tabulated and will be used to repay the debt to the community.

"This is a village project about bringing the fish back and we are going to sequester carbon," said Disney, who is delighted at the algae bloom and the abundant sea life feeding there.

"It's like putting compost on your lettuces.... We have tuna, salmon, whales and dolphins," Disney said.

"We have had enormous support for this from leading scientists and institutions and we have come up roses. We have created life out there."

The salmon-restoration project started because coho and chinook from the Haida Gwaii hatchery were not surviving in the ocean and research showed there was not enough food, Disney said.

The missing element appeared to be iron — the scientific clincher was when unexpectedly high returns of salmon to the Fraser River in 2008 were attributed to volcanic dust, he said.

Iron sulphate — iron-rich dust from Alberta — was taken by a local ship in July and put into a moving eddy in the ocean, which is now about 400 kilometres offshore, Disney said.

The project was not going to be publicized until all the data was analyzed, but on Monday, the British newspaper the Guardian ran a story documenting the geoengineering, predicting the experiment would spark outrage at a United Nations environmental summit in India this week.

Observers say the experiment contravenes the UN convention on biological diversity and London convention on the dumping of waste at sea.

"It appears to be a blatant violation of two international resolutions," Kristina Gjerde, a high seas adviser for the International Union for Conservation of Nature told the Guardian.

"This does not appear to even have had the guise of legitimate scientific research."

An Environment Canada spokesman said in an emailed statement that the department is aware of the experiment and the matter is under investigation, so it would be inappropriate to comment further.

University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver said research shows that some parts of the ocean are iron limited and that iron can cause a plankton bloom, but there is no proof it has an effect on salmon.

"When you do something like this, there are profound implications. Using the ocean as a carbon sink can cause ocean acidification," he said.

It's also not clear that the carbon can be sequestered — it's likely it would end up being released back into the atmosphere, Weaver said.

"They are not going to get a penny in carbon credits, because there's no evidence the carbon is going to stay where it is," he said.

There could also be serious consequences if other countries decide to do their own uncontrolled experiments, Weaver said

"You just can't be doing this. This is why we have international treaties and international law and processes."

Guujaaw, president of the Haida Nation, said the geoengineering was a local decision by Old Massett, but concerns are growing about possible effects.

"This might be something where there were good intentions, but my concern is the reputation of our people," he said. "We have fought hard to protect our land."

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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