What a difference a month can make. In early October we received notice that a large-scale iron fertilization project had been undertaken in the ocean off the coast of Haida Gwaii – apparently in international waters. At that point, the project as developed and spearheaded by the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation (HSRC) and dumped 120 metric tonnes of iron sulfate in July, had largely gone unnoticed nationally and internationally. Hardly anyone had heard of Russ George or ocean fertilization using iron as a means of geo-engineering a solution to wild salmon depletion and climate change.

A month later, after a flurry of constant media attention from the international level down to the local (breaking with The Guardian UK October 15 story ), a hastily organized press conference by the proponents of the project later that week, and subsequent Federal Government and international condemnation of the project, we now have a very different situation.

The international spotlight recently culminated in a statement from the United Nations articulating their serious concerns about the project - more on that below.

The $2.5 million project by Mr. Russ George and HSRC was approved by the Old Massett Village Council in consultation with its community.  The project was pitched, according to HSRC, as a means of restoring salmon which are so vital to the Haida, economically, culturally, spiritually.

This risky endeavour was also sold on the basis of selling carbon credits that would supposedly be generated through the resulting phytoplankton blooms which would theoretically capture and retain carbon dioxide. Mr. George has tried to get these sorts of controversial projects going elsewhere without any success, which is expected, given the environmental risks and hokey science at play vis-à-vis carbon credits.

At Greenpeace we definitely understand and concur with the need to restore wild salmon to the oceans and streams of the coast, and to the peoples who have relied on these for their sustenance for millennia. And apparently the salmon the Haida of Old Massett release from their hatchery are coming back in seriously reduced numbers, and this is very troubling. But the great environmental and economic risks inherent in this project especially as undertaken in a laboratory consisting of the wide-open ocean do not outweigh potential benefits, which may never materialize.

In tracking this story over the past month, I have noticed the reasons given for this project have been in flux, much like the Haida Eddy gyre in which the iron was dumped. While ostensibly about salmon restoration, we have also heard from the project’s proponents that this initiative has actually been a scientific experiment to address climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide.

Further, at their October 19th press conference held at the Vancouver Aquarium, we were told the carbon credits that would hopefully be generated from such a project would likely go towards paying for the project (though Mr. George in the past has been involved in such schemes on a for-profit basis). So which is it? Is it a scientific experiment or a commercial enterprise or salmon recovery for sustenance? Perhaps all the above.

However I came away with even more questions than answers as a result of the press conference, and subsequent media reports following various investigative angles have further broadened the story to such a degree that it’s no longer clear as to the original objectives.

What is clear is that this was a poorly executed scientific experiment carried out in contravention of national and international conventions that speak to such activities.  The international scientific community, including those scientists who support limited forms of geo-engineering, have criticized the lack of scientific rigour to the project.

What is also clear is that the Federal Government failed in its responsibilities nationally and internationally to halt the project, despite the fact they were well aware of the project before the iron was discharged into the ocean in July.

Greenpeace’s position on ocean fertilization is clear:

1. We call for the use of the precautionary principle and ecosystem approach when evaluating new and emerging activities in and on our oceans.

2. We oppose ocean fertilization and consider projects like this a false solution to climate change.

3. We strongly oppose giving carbon credits to ocean fertilization schemes.

4. We are opposed to any government support for ocean fertilization.

I felt our concerns and fears over this project were only deepened coming out of that very well-attended October 19th press conference, especially given that there was no acknowledgement by HSRC that any mistakes were made and that the project stands on solid scientific foundations- despite the voiced objections of university scientific experts in the audience 

Although Mr George and HSRC has consistently stated that its controversial project was within the bounds of national and international rules governing such activities in open ocean, recent developments would indicate otherwise.

For instance, Federal Minister of the Environment Peter Kent has (finally) recently declared such a project as ‘rogue science’ (read: outside the law). Although the feds should have stopped this project rather than just issue ‘fact sheets’ when officials met with the proponents back in May, at least they are making some strong statements on the matter.   

And at the international level, three days ago the United Nation’s International Maritime Organization (IMO), which administers the 2008 London Convention and London Protocol (LC-LP) prohibiting ocean fertilization other than for strictly scientific research (notably on a much smaller scale), expressed ‘grave concern’ about the project.

We welcome the IMO statement, especially as we believe it confirms the widespread assertion that the project is in violation of the 2008 convention. The communiqué thankfully goes further in calling for all nations party to the LC-LP to continue working towards “providing a global, transparent, and effective control and regulatory mechanism for ocean fertilization activities…[which] have the potential to cause harm to the marine environment." If nothing else, what took place off the coast of Haida Gwaii is a wake-up call to diligent action.

Greenpeace has been at the forefront in flagging concerns  over ocean fertilization for more than five years and was involved in the development of the LC-LP prohibition on ocean fertilization. The recognition by the IMO is an important affirmation internationally that this project is deeply problematic.  

As a signatory to the LC-LP the Federal Government has a duty to now to not only monitor the impacts of the iron dump and the 10 000-square-kilometre plankton bloom, but also to ensure this type of activity with its flagrant disregard for the precautionary principle, especially on this scale, does not happen again.

Perhaps the silver lining in this whole thing is that this project will renew and hasten international efforts amongst nations to develop and agree to broader regulation on ocean geo-engineering.

So here we are, one month later after first getting wind of this story. It's been a whirlwind. I can say with certainty that we are all the more aware of this project, and its status as a false solution to serious environmental and economic concerns related to declining wild salmon stocks and to climate change. But are we the wiser? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, for this and other schemes being considered of this nature, I take to heart the wise words issued by the Council of the Haida Nation in their October 18th response  to the project:

The consequences of tampering with nature at this scale are not predictable and pose unacceptable risks to the marine environment. Our people along with the rest of humanity depend on the oceans and cannot leave the fate of the oceans to the whim of the few.