Their work has been described as a “rogue experiment” and a case of “illegal geoengineering” of one of the Earth's most complex natural systems.
But the operators of a B.C.-based company under investigation for possible violations of Canada's Environmental Assessment Act appear to be making headway in their quest to gain public and scientific acceptance of the iron fertilization project done in the summer of 2012 in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Haida Gwaii.
Peter Gross, a Lions Bay resident and senior oceanographic engineer for the Haida Salmon Restoration Project, and Jason McNamee, the company's director and operations officer, made an impassioned argument for their cause in front of a couple dozen Squamish Streamkeepers last Thursday (Sept. 19) at the Brackendale Art Gallery.
As the 90-minute presentation and question-and-answer session progressed, it appeared members of the local group grew less skeptical and more convinced that the dumping of some 120 tonnes of iron sulfate and iron oxide into the ocean — which Gross said produced a significant and immediate bloom of phytoplankton at the surface — might not have been such an outrageous idea after all.
Afterward, the Streamkeepers' Jonn Matsen said that while he's not convinced that the experiment was a catalyst for this year's humongous run of pink salmon in the Squamish River, he's also not yet willing to say it wasn't.
“They don't claim that they can prove it, but if it's possible that we can enhance salmon runs with this sort of work, perhaps it should be looked at further,” Matsen said.
Gross told the group that the 120 tonnes of iron compounds dumped into a 4,500-square-kilometre stretch of ocean in August 2012 was the rough equivalent of putting 10 grains of sand into 100 dump trucks.
After hearing the first part of the two men's presentation, Streamkeeper John Buchanan said that given the relatively small size of the experiment, “I'd be surprised if you could even measure the change [to salmon runs] from that amount of material.”
Gross said the experiment's aim was merely to replicate a natural phenomenon that occurred more frequently in past centuries than it has in recent years. In the past, Aeolian winds often deposited iron-rich sands from the Gobi Desert in Asia into the Pacific Ocean, creating blooms of single-celled phytoplankton, which grow to become zooplankton — small organisms that are consumed by fish and other sea life, Gross said.
Because of climactic changes, Aeolian winds don't blow from Asia into the Pacific as frequently now as they did in past centuries, Gross said. However, in August 2008, the Kasatochi volcano in Alaska's Aleutian Islands erupted, depositing enormous amounts of iron-rich ash into the Gulf of Alaska, creating what he called the largest phytoplankton bloom ever recorded.
The Kasatochi phenomenon was one of the catalysts for the Haida Nation to undertake the $2.5 million fertilization experiment at the urging of California businessman and researcher Russ George. The project is part of an effort to explore the enhancement of salmon stocks and sell carbon credits for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, Gross said.
Buchanan said he wondered whether activity such as iron fertilization might also lead to an increase in less desirable organisms such as jellyfish.
Gross said that's an issue that might merit further study. “We have precisely the same questions you have,” he said.
In May, the company's board removed George as the lead scientist and director because it was felt “a change in tone and strategic direction was necessary,” a board member told the Vancouver Sun. George said the board didn't have authority to do that and vowed to fight his removal.
Gross said Haida Salmon Restoration Corp. has been unfairly demonized in the media, at least partly because those from some environmental groups who offered up comments didn't understand the science. One report even suggested the experiment might have contributed to the 7.7-magnitude earthquake that struck off Haida Gwaii last October, Gross said, drawing guffaws from some members of the audience.
Added McNamee, “We got hammered by a slick marketing campaign. Those green groups know what the heck they're doing.”
In March, federal government officials raided the company's offices and confiscated some of its data as part of its investigation into possible violations of the Environmental Protection Act. The company, McNamee said, has sued the government to get the materials back.
Federal officials, he said, have cited the London Protocol — an international agreement about ocean experimentation to which Canada is a signatory — as a basis for its investigation. But the protocol, which includes a provision that ocean research must be done for scientific purposes without an overt commercial application, doesn't have the force of law, McNamee said.
“Until that is brought into force, we don't believe they can raid our premises,” he said.
McNamee admitted the company may have violated the letter of the scientific tenet known as the precautionary principle. However, he said he believes this sort of research is needed as part of an effort to counteract the effects of climate change, if possible — commercial application or no.
He pointed out that the authorities routinely fertilize freshwater lakes to boost sportfish production. What's more, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans carried out its own ocean fertilization in 2005, dumping some seven tonnes of iron compounds into the Pacific off the west coast of Vancouver Island, he said.
At the moment, Gross said, “The Government of Canada is doing their very best to kill this experiment.”
This week, the company was to team up with Dr. John Bird, a professor of engineering science at Simon Fraser University and an expert in underwater environmental surveys and mapping, to present the iron fertilization experiment's data to scientists at the Oceans 2013 Conference in San Diego.