Salmon and Ocean Iron Fertilization

Last summer a Haida community on the coast of British Columbia arranged and funded a rogue initiative involving ocean iron fertilization in hopes of helping their vanished salmon to return. This didn’t hit the press until late October, and then pretty well everyone – government agencies in Canada and the US, along with environmental organizations both moderate and extremist – criticized the community for doing something so risky, without government regulation or monitoring, in violation of international agreements.

Areas (in purple) of the Pacific Ocean where levels of iron are too low to support extensive growth of phytoplankton. Most experiments were done in the Southern Ocean in the early 1990s.

The community hired Russ George to do the work for $2.5 million. He persuaded the community that by dumping iron sulphate in the ocean not only would plankton bloom and fish return, but also that the carbon sucked out of the atmosphere by phytoplankton photosynthesis would sink and become sequestered in deep water, allowing them to sell carbon credits to CO2 emitters elsewhere in the world and get their money back.

So what happened? Russ George scattered 100 tons of iron sulphate over 10,000 sq km in the North Pacific west of Haida Gwaii, the largest iron fertilization of ocean surface waters yet attempted. The phytoplankton bloomed, for that part of the North Pacific is low in iron. Herring, salmon, tuna, dolphins and even whales arrived in the area to feed over the next couple of months.

Haida Gwaii refers to the islands along the northern coast of British Columbia. The reds and yellows indicate areas where chlorophyll and therefore phytoplankton levels are high. The blues, offshore in the Gulf of Alaska where the salmon spend a couple of years, indicate areas of very low levels of chlorophyll (

This isn’t a surprise. Twice in the relatively recent past, volcanic eruptions sent clouds rich in iron dust over the same part of the Pacific, and phytoplankon blooms then occurred, followed by bumper salmon runs in the coastal rivers a couple of years later. That part of the science is solid.

But what happened to the dead phytoplankton and its carbon? Did it sink? Or did it recirculate instead? Only one study, an experiment done in 1994 in the Southern Ocean and finally published last summer, indicates that a reasonable amount of the carbon might sink. Does that apply to the North Pacific? Are there other unexpected side effects involving nitrous oxide or methane that should worry us? No one knows as yet and because of the risks there has been a moratorium on iron fertilization experiments since 1994, unbroken until now.

Does the Haida community really deserve criticism? At most it is guilty of trusting Russ George, who surely knew exactly what he was doing.

Wild salmon have always been central to Haida culture. What happens when the fish become so rare that few return to breed in the coastal rivers they were born in? The crash of the salmon fishery in recent years sent unemployment in the community from 0% up to 70%. Some kind of action was needed. The last thing they wanted was this attention. They just wanted to try to get their salmon back.

Salmon have long played a critical role in Haida culture.

The Haida community trusted someone they shouldn’t have. They won’t have a chance to continue with further fertilizations, for repaying their current debt will be hard, and now too many eyes are on them, including those of the very aggressive Sea Shepherd.

So what’s the right answer here? We loudly criticize and prevent any actions like that of the Haida, while we remain complicit partners with the global extractive corporations and carbon emitters that made their action necessary.

The Haida of Old Massett, on the north coast of Haida Gwaii, are no doubt frustrated and may be embarrassed by how this worked out.

But they are not wrong

Haida Gwaii, once known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, remote from the over-populated parts of the world, but still deeply impacted by the depletion of the salmon (

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