VANCOUVER - A small British Columbia First Nation making waves around the world with a controversial experiment in the Pacific Ocean is on the front lines of climate change, even critics admit.
And as the fears of global warming grow, there is a risk that potentially dangerous geoengineering experiments like the ocean fertilization carried out off the islands of Haida Gwaii will be unleashed as a quick fix, warns Jim Thomas, spokesman for Montreal-based ETC Group, a geoengineering watchdog.
"In desperate times desperate people do sometimes rather stupid things," said Thomas.
A spokesman for the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp., which arranged funding for and carried out the experiment, said the organization is no longer doing media interviews about the issue.
John Disney, head of the salmon restoration corporation and economic development officer for Old Massett, said the corporation's intentions have been misinterpreted, and the experience has been very trying.
"You have to understand that caught up in some big international ... whatever, this little Haida community has had their whole integrity and their character totally assassinated," Disney said.
The Haida people have relied for centuries on the world around them for survival, in particular on the salmon. The fish play a central role in not only the Haida diet, but the culture of Haida Gwaii, an archipelago 80 km off the northwest coast of B.C., that is home to a UNESCO world heritage site.
Like fishermen throughout B.C., they watched salmon stocks decline for decades until a near collapse in 2009. That year, the largest run in the province — the Fraser River run — plummeted to 1.7 million fish. The federal government announced a public inquiry, but many felt it was too late to save the run.
Then the following year, returns defied all predictions. Rivers ran red with the backs of spawning salmon as the Fraser River run hit 34 million.
There is no shortage of scientific speculation that a 2008 volcanic eruption on the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, which spewed iron-laden ash over thousands of kilometres of the North Pacific, was the cause for the large return.
A 2010 study of the Mount Kasatoshi volcano by Institute of Ocean Sciences, within the federal Fisheries and Oceans Ministry, concluded that the ash was a contributing factor.
"...the volcanic emission of iron-rich dust in 2008 caused a massive late summer bloom of diatoms that enhanced the food chain for young sockeye salmon in the Gulf shortly after they migrated into the oceanic habitat," it said, though the ash was not exclusively responsible.
And it was not the first time. In 1956, the study noted, a volcanic eruption in Kamchatka, Russia, was believed to cause a sockeye run 20 million-strong in 1958.
"This is about the fish,'' Ken Rea, chief councillor for the village of Old Massett, said when news first broke of the experiment. "This is about providing sustainable opportunities for our future generations.''
Over several days in late July, from a leased fishing vessel called the Ocean Pearl, almost 200 metric tons of iron dust, iron sulfate fertilizer and iron oxide were dumped over an area of about one square kilometre 300 kilometres west of Haida Gwaii, just outside Canadian territorial waters.
Satellite images suggest the fertilization resulted in a 10,000-square kilometre plankton bloom. The Haida will have to wait two years to see if they achieved the desired effect on salmon returns.
But if the village of Old Massett entered into the experiment in an effort to restore salmon, critics aren't saying the same of its partner in the project.
Russ George is listed as the CEO and chief scientist of Planktos Inc., a defunct company dedicated to "carbon remediation and creative eco-restoration." George has made several attempts to sell carbon credits for ocean fertilization.
"This is a village project. They started it, they own it, they run it. It's not the Russ George rogue geoengineering story," George told Scientific American magazine this week.
"You've seen the vile and vehement twisting of this story. You can probably imagine how I feel. (It) was the faith and trust and hopes and dreams of a village whose environment is dying, whose culture is dying because the salmon are dying. And now the world is saying they were duped."
George is pursuing the Holy Grail of environmental entrepreneurship: a profitable process to address the current global climate crisis.
A phytoplankton bloom does capture carbon, trapping it at the bottom of the ocean as the organisms that feed off the algae die and sink. Previous, smaller-scale tests show the effect was short-term.
"It's not divided," said Roberta Hamme, an oceanographer at the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria who studied the fallout from the 2008 volcanic eruption in Alaska.
"Almost every experiment has said that it's not an efficient way. You can take up some carbon, but it's not an efficient way to go about it and, if it were done on a large scale, would likely have significant impacts on the ecosystem."
George's critics suggest long-term carbon capture is environmental snake oil.
"Our concerns are nested in wider concerns about geoengineering ... We are concerned about any move towards deploying or testing geoengineering schemes," said Thomas, of ETC, which stands for Erosion, Technology and Concentration.
"We're concerned about what this means in terms of moving toward more geoengineering tests."
International negotiations have failed to address climate change, he said, and there are people who "are reaching for these quick fix, very risky approaches such as geoengineering."
As far as salmon restoration, Thomas said stakeholders should wait for the report expected later this year from the public inquiry into the 2009 collapse.
"The particular hypothesis that they were trying to examine is interesting but it's not an excuse to try a large-scale ocean fertilization."
Also on HuffPost:
Many marine scientists <a href="http://www.oceanconservancy.org/site/PageServer?pagename=issues_overfishing" target="_hplink">consider</a> overfishing to be the worst impact humans are having on the oceans. The Food and Agriculture Organization <a href="http://www.un.org/events/tenstories/06/story.asp?storyID=800" target="_hplink">estimates</a> that over 70% of the world’s fish species have been entirely exploited or depleted. By capturing fish faster than they can reproduce, we are harming entire ecosystems that interact with those species, from the food they eat to the predators that eat them. These losses make the ecosystems more <a href="http://explorations.ucsd.edu/biodiversity/" target="_hplink">vulnerable</a> to other disturbances, such as pollution. A complete overhaul of fishing policies, requiring global cooperation, is needed to achieve a sustainable system.
Irresponsible Fish Farming
Fish farming, or aquaculture, is the growing response to wild fish stocks rapidly depleting. While it sounds like a good idea in theory, it unfortunately has many negative consequences due to poorly managed operations. Nutrient and chemical pollution can occur easily in open-ocean operations when fish feed, excrement, and medication is released into the environment. Farmed fish accidentally released into wild populations can also have <a href="http://www.fao.org/fishery/topic/14894/en" target="_hplink">destructive effects</a>, such as loss of native stocks, disease transmission, and damaging changes in habitat. Unfortunately, the biggest hindrance to overcoming the challenges of an industry that supplies nearly <a href="http://www.greenfacts.org/en/fisheries/l-2/01-fisheries-production.htm#5" target="_hplink">50%</a> of the world’s fish food supply is that it currently remains relatively <a href="http://www.oceanconservancy.org/site/PageServer?pagename=issues_aquaculture" target="_hplink">unregulated</a>.
Ghost fishing is an environmentally harmful issue caused when lost or discarded fishing gear continues to catch fish and other marine life. Often times, the traps trigger a chain-reaction problem when larger predators come to eat the smaller ones that have been ensnared, only to get tangled in the mess themselves. The issue of ghost fishing is <a href="http://www.fao.org/fishery/topic/14798/en" target="_hplink">most common</a> with passive gear that has been abandoned, and also poses a serious threat to other ocean vessels. Stray gear can be caught in the propeller of a boat, damaging or even disabling it. Many solutions have been offered, such as fishing gear made from biodegradable materials or incentives like the Republic of Korea’s <a href="http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/projects/koreajpa.html" target="_hplink">buy-back program</a>, which rewards fisherman for turning in old gear.
This one is the most obvious. It’s astounding how much of our trash finds its way into the ocean. Animals become easily entangled and trapped in our garbage, and it can destroy delicate sea life like coral and sponges. In addition, sea turtles and dolphins often mistake plastic bags for their favorite foods, jellyfish and squids, <a href="http://www.oceanconservancy.org/site/PageServer?pagename=issues_debris" target="_hplink">choking them</a> or clogging their digestive system. If that’s not bad enough, hopefully the <a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/07/090731-ocean-trash-pacific.html" target="_hplink">bigger-than-Texas trash vortex</a> in the Pacific Ocean and its <a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/03/100302-new-ocean-trash-garbage-patch/" target="_hplink">smaller cousin</a> in the Atlantic will help serve as a wakeup call.
The ocean absorbs as much as <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080521105251.htm" target="_hplink">one third</a> of the CO2 emitted worldwide, which keeps us cooler but makes the ocean surface much more acidic. This has the effect of limiting calcium carbonate needed by coral, plankton, and other marine life that <a href="http://www.oceanconservancy.org/site/News2?news_iv_ctrl=-1&abbr=press_&page=NewsArticle&id=10341#OceanAcidifying" target="_hplink">use it</a> to build the skeletal frames and shells that protect them. Oceanic acidity has increased by <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocean_acidification" target="_hplink">25%</a> since the industrial revolution, and will eventually destroy much marine life if it increases at this rate.
Dead zones are areas where the sea floor has little to no dissolved oxygen. These areas are often found at the mouths of large rivers, and are caused <a href="http://disc.sci.gsfc.nasa.gov/oceancolor/additional/science-focus/ocean-color/dead_zones.shtml" target="_hplink">primarily</a> by fertilizers that are being carried in the runoff. Unfortunately, the lack of oxygen kills many creatures and destroys entire habitats. At our current rate, dead zones will increase by <a href="http://www.nature.com/news/2008/081114/full/news.2008.1230.html" target="_hplink">50%</a> before the end of the century.
Scientists <a href="http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/ocean-mercury-increasing" target="_hplink">report</a> that our ocean’s mercury levels have risen over 30% the last 20 years, and will increase another 50% in the next few decades. Emissions from coal power plants are the <a href="http://www.nescaum.org/documents/rpt031104mercury.pdf/" target="_hplink">primary culprit</a>, dispensing poisonous mercury that works its way up the food chain, eventually coming to us through the fish we eat. This <a href="http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=9899" target="_hplink">neurotoxin</a> can alter brain development of fetuses and has been linked with learning problems.
Offshore drilling continues to be a debate, but it’s clear that proceeding with oil production will only exacerbate the dilemmas of our oceans. The use of fossil fuels is the reason our oceans have been heating up and becoming more acidic, but offshore drilling takes the risks even further. When oil is extracted from the ocean floor, other chemicals like mercury, arsenic, and lead <a href="http://science.howstuffworks.com/offshore-drilling-controversy2.htm" target="_hplink">come up with it</a>. Also, the seismic waves used to find oil harm aquatic mammals and disorient whales. In 2008, <a href="http://www.livescience.com/environment/080625-oil-drilling.html" target="_hplink">100 whales</a> had beached themselves as a result of ExxonMobil exploring for oil with these techniques. Furthermore, the infrastructure projects to transport the oil often create <a href="http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/02/offshore-drilling-oil-false-hope.php" target="_hplink">worse problems</a>, eroding the coastline. These realities are another reason
Shark Finning / Whaling
The destruction of the ocean’s most important predators has significant consequences that ripple down the food chain. 50 to 100 million sharks are killed <a href="http://www.hsus.org/hsi/oceans/sharks/shark_finning/" target="_hplink">each year</a>, either as bycatch from fishing vessels or directly hunted for their dorsal fins, used in an expensive soup popular across Asia. When finned, the sharks are thrown back into the water, often still alive and left to bleed to death. Unfortunately, sharks reproduce fairly <a href="http://www.treehugger.com/files/2007/01/jeanmichel_cous.php" target="_hplink">slowly</a> and don’t have a large amount of offspring, so these actions have long-lasting effects on the delicate ecosystems they help <a href="http://www.hsus.org/hsi/oceans/sharks/shark_finning/shark_finning_faq.html" target="_hplink">regulate</a>. Despite the 1986 moratorium on many types of whaling, it still continues to be a problem, with some nations like Japan looking for loopholes and lobbying for lax regulations.