Undisclosed large scale ocean fertilization off Canada’s coast contravenes international conventions and places important ocean ecosystems and species at risk

Russ George, former chief executive of Planktos Inc., and partners dumped around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean as part of a geoengineering scheme off the west coast of Canada in July. The intention is for the plankton to absorb carbon dioxide and then sink to the ocean bed – a geoengineering technique known as ocean fertiliaation that could support carbon credits

Satellite images appear to confirm the claim that the iron has spawned an artificial plankton or algal bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometres. The intention is for the plankton to absorb carbon dioxide and then sink to the ocean bed – a geo-engineering technique known as ocean fertilization. The dump took place without any prior public disclosure from a fishing boat in an eddy 200 nautical miles west of the islands of Haida Gwaiii, one of the world’s most celebrated, diverse ecosystems.

The Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, a private partnership funded by the Old Massett Village Council of the Haida First Nation, provided more than $1 million of its  funds for this project. The president of the Haida Nation Guujaaw said the village was told the dump would environmentally benefit the ocean, which is crucial to their livelihood and culture.”The village people voted to support what they were told was a ‘salmon enhancement project’ and would not have agreed if they had been told of any potential negative effects or that it was in breach of an international convention,” Guujaaw said.

International legal experts say Mr George’s project has contravened UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)  and London Convention on Prevention of Marine Pollution from the Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (the London Convention),, which both prohibit for-profit ocean fertilisation activities. This ocean dumping of iron would have been illegal if it has occurred  in Canada’s waters without authorization under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999.

Mr George had previously tried to conduct large-scale commercial dumps of iron near the Galapagos and Canary Islands which led to his vessels being banned from those ports by the governments of Ecuador and Spain. At that time, the US Environmental Protection Agency warned Mr George that flying a US flag for his Galapagos project would violate US laws. Mr George’s prior activities contributed to the UN CBD and London Convention provisions limiting ocean fertilization.

There is scientific debate as to whether ocean fertilization can sequester carbon in the oceans over the long term, and concern about whether it can irreparably harm ocean ecosystems, produce toxic tides and oxygen starved waters, or worsen ocean acidification. Possible side effects such as deep water oxygen depletion, and alternation of distant nutrient cycles and food webs make iron dumping questionable, and at the very least require any dumping to occur under controlled and carefully monitored circumstances.

There has been one experiment conducted in 2004 that suggested ocean fertilization might be have some positive effect. In February 2004, researchers involved in the European Iron Fertilization Experiment (EIFEX) fertilized 167 square kilometres of the Southern Ocean with several tonnes of iron sulphate in a precise and controlled manner. For 37 days, the German research vessel Polarstern monitored the bloom and demise of single-cell algae or plankton in the iron-limited but otherwise nutrient-rich ocean region. This experiment was done on a small scale in an isolated region of the Southern Ocean,  with the open and transparent participation of research institutes and scientists, and prior to prohibitions under the CBD and London Convention. Eight years later in July 2012, an analysis of the 2004 EIFEX experiment in Nature News suggested that some carbon was sequestered in that experiment.