10/17/2012 04:18 EDT | Updated 12/17/2012 05:12 EST

Iron dump in Pacific wasn't news to government, project says

Government bodies knew about a controversial experimental project in which 100 tonnes of a dust-like material was dumped into the ocean off B.C.'s north coast, the project's leader said.

John Disney, the president of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp, which initiated the $2-million ocean fertilization project, told CBC News that various federal government departments were aware of his controversial plan.

In an interview with CBC Radio's As It Happens, Disney said he had been in touch with several federal departments and agencies, including Indian and Northern Affairs.

So Ottawa knew, Disney said. "I don't know what happens within the federal government. All I am saying is everyone from the [Canada] Revenue Agency down to the National Research Council, and [the Department of Fisheries and Oceans] and Environment Canada, all these people, they have all known about this."

The project, in which fine brown dirt-like material was dumped about 300 kilometres west of the islands of Haida Gwaii, was intended to raise nutrient levels offshore in hopes of reviving salmon populations, according to Disney.

Some condemnation

Earlier reports said iron sulphate was used in the dump, but Disney said this was incorrect. He says a finely ground dirt-like substance with trace amounts of iron was actually used.

The project has stoked controversy and drawn condemnation from some in the scientific community.

The dumping created a bloom of phyto-plankton — plants at the base of the food chain that are eaten by other creatures. But the bloom grew to cover 10,000 square kilometres and was visible from space.

Maite Maldonado, a biological oceanographer at the University of B.C. who specializes in the impact of trace minerals on ocean life, told CBC News on Tuesday that this could result in the reverse of what was intended.

100 times larger

The project is 100 times larger than any of the previous experiments in iron fertilization, she said.

“It scares me .… We have to be very careful about doing this without having a full understanding of how the ecosystem as a whole is going to respond," Mandonado said.

The lack of oxygen could potentially create toxic, lifeless waters, she said.

But Disney said the project has received support from scientific organizations around the world, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S.

"We've got people all over, people in the Canary Islands, people [for] who this is their area of expertise and they're all extremely excited... Because they've been waiting for a very, very long time for somebody to do this on a slightly larger scale."