John Disney (2nd L), director of Old Massett Village economic development on Haida Gwaii, looks at the underwater probe used during their ocean fertilization project at a news conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, in this 19 October 2012 file picture. Photo: Andy Clark / REUTERS

By Alister Doyle; Editing by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith
30 August 2013

(Reuters) – Last year the Haida, an indigenous group in Canada, set out to increase their salmon stocks and save the planet. Helped by American businessman Russ George, a group of villagers dumped 100 metric tons (110.23 tons) of iron dust from a boat into the Pacific Ocean.

They wanted to see if the iron would cause a bloom of algae that could promote fish numbers and absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Instead, in March, they were raided by Canadian officials for illegal dumping at sea.

"I think they (the officials) kind of expected to see Dr. Evil and his group planning to destroy the Earth with geoengineers," said James Straith, lawyer for Haida Salmon Restoration Corp. (HSRC), as the project called itself.

"What they got was a bunch of nice kids doing a lot of things on plankton scanning, scientific models and analyzing data. … Did the officials really need bullet-proof vests?"

The Haida case highlights a growing legal, environmental and even geo-political conundrum.

The Canadian group is part of a debate about geoengineering - deliberate and sometimes sci-fi-like interventions designed to slow climate change. A U.N. panel of climate scientists says carbon dioxide and other gases are causing global temperatures to rise and change our climate and will lead to more heat waves, droughts, floods and rising seas. Geoengineers have proposed everything from brightening clouds to reflect more sunlight and heat back into space to - as in the case of the Haida - encouraging the oceans to soak up more carbon dioxide.

The idea behind the ‘ocean fertilization' experiment was simple: iron will promote the growth of algae which will provide food for fish and absorb carbon dioxide from the air as they grow. When the algae die their remains fall to the seabed, removing them from the atmosphere.

Environment Canada, the nation's environment ministry, said the experiment was illegal under Canadian law and violated the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the London Convention, which governs dumping at sea. World leaders at a U.N. Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro last year urged "utmost caution" in ocean fertilization due to worries that it could disrupt marine life. Many scientists remain skeptical about whether any form of geoengineering will solve climate change. Allowing research, they argue, may detract from efforts to reduce emissions from cars, power plants and factories.

But despite the uncertainty about efficacy and safety, groups and individuals around the world are beginning to experiment, arguing that humanity needs a ‘Plan B’ in case countries don't cut greenhouse gas emissions.

A draft of a report by the U.N. panel, due for publication in late September and seen by Reuters, warns that the side-effects of sun-dimming geoengineering, for instance, "make it a high-risk strategy" but also concludes that some methods might help avoid some of the worst effects of warming.

The Haida are fighting back after the raids of their offices. Despite the government's claim that their experiment was illegal, Haida Salmon Restoration Corp. has not been charged with any crime. The company, which the Haida set up with George, is contesting the legality of the raids, arguing that Ottawa's anti-pollution laws do not apply and that international resolutions lack legal force. Volcanic eruptions also cause algal blooms, the Haida say; the group was merely trying to mimic that process.

George, who has long promoted ocean fertilization as a partial fix for climate change, said it is unfair that Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for planting trees while his efforts at sea have triggered mostly vilification.

Though the Haida case is relatively small, it is being watched closely by the scientific and legal communities, who worry that a rogue nation or individual will start a large-scale experiment that might go awry. Diplomats and lawyers are racing to lay down laws before that can happen.

The ETC Group, a Canada-based non-governmental organization opposed to geoengineering, said even research is risky. "The moment you accept that geoengineering is a Plan B it will become Plan A for some governments," executive director Pat Mooney said.

About 700 Haida live in the village of Old Massett on Graham Island on Canada's west coast. Earthquakes regularly shake the island and Pacific storms beat at its forested coastline. A beach at the end of the local airport has washed away in recent years.

The numbers of salmon, the mainstay of the local economy, have been falling off western Canada since the 1990s. A government commission set up to examine the decline blamed overfishing, pesticides and climate change. Only 1.4 million sockeye salmon returned to the Fraser River, the biggest in British Columbia, in 2009. That was the lowest since the 1940s and down from more than 10 million some years in the 1990s, the commission said.

The Old Massett village council set up HSRC in 2010, hoping to use technology to restore fish stocks.

It approached George, seeing him as a crusader for the planet while governments dithered. George had founded Planktos Inc., a San Francisco-based ocean fertilization firm that tried and failed to dump iron in the seas off the Galapagos and the Canary Islands, raising the ire of the Ecuadorean and Spanish governments. The firm went bankrupt in 2008, following the failures.

With the help of George, HSRC chartered the Ocean Pearl, a fishing boat, and obtained iron dust made by Maryland-based QC Corp., which mostly sells feed supplement for farm animals. The company said it does not track how firms such as HSRC use its products.

HSRC scattered the iron about 200 nautical miles off Canada, in international waters, last July. Since then, it said it has monitored the area and more salmon, tuna, whales and dolphins have been seen there.

"It was an amazing success … [even though] there has been lots of debate, lots of criticism, lots of people throwing rocks," said John Disney, president of HSRC. "We wouldn't have done it if it was illegal."

Environment Canada has not assessed whether the experiment worked but other experts say it is impossible to know. A NASA satellite image from August 2012 showed a bloom of algae in the area but it is unclear if it was caused by the iron dust.

"There was no verification. … We don't know if (George's) actions had any impacts," said Victor Smetacek, of the Alfred Wegener Institute for polar and marine research in Germany.

Smetacek himself carried out an iron fertilization experiment in 2009 in the Southern Ocean and favors the technology. "Iron fertilization is not going to be a panacea by any means but it's the only responsible thing to do," he said.

Criticism of HSRC included a statement of "grave concern" last November by the 87 nations in the London Convention, which regulates dumping at sea. "Ocean fertilization has the potential to have widespread, long-lasting and severe impacts on the marine environment, with implications for human health," it said.

After the raid, HSRC ousted George from the board in May. One Haida official said they had underestimated criticisms of George's past ventures, which include Planktos and a scheme to plant millions of trees in Hungary. The company itself said it would respond to "legitimate concerns" about its policies.

Straith, the HSRC lawyer, declined to comment when asked if the Haida felt misled, or were considering legal action against George. George said he did nothing wrong.

HSRC is frustrated that most media reports criticized it and ignored its view that the experiment marked a breakthrough in ocean management.

"It's like a doctor announces he has discovered the cure for cancer and the press spends 98 percent of their time reporting on the fact that the doctor is having an affair," Disney said in an e-mail to Reuters.

Even so, there were concerns from the start.

Canada's Northern Savings Credit Union agreed to help finance the $2.5 million project, which was secured using other Haida funds as collateral, but raised concerns about George, Planktos and ocean fertilization, according to documents prepared by Environment Canada to justify the raids.

"We had the impression that Planktos Science was a recognized world authority and that informed scientists generally favored the proposed process," say documents written by the credit union. It expressed "surprise" to find that many experts disagreed with George's theories and urged HSRC to check further. Contacted by Reuters, it declined to comment on the loan.

The company had hoped to win credits for burying carbon dioxide in the sea. Economists and U.N. climate change negotiators developed the idea of carbon credits in the early 2000s as a way to encourage a market solution to slowing greenhouse gas emissions. One part of the scheme allowed projects that cut emissions to claim credits that they could cash in. George's Planktos and Hungary ventures were set up with the hope that they could earn such carbon credits.

But the U.N. has put off the proposed scheme, in part because it's difficult to verify how long carbon stays in the sea. HSRC, which will contest the legality of the raids in court sometime in the coming weeks, estimates that its experiment absorbed 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Some leaders of the Haida, who total about 2,500 people on traditional territories from southern Alaska to the Haida Gwaii archipelago, disapproved of the experiment.

"The consequences of tampering with nature at this scale are not predictable," the Hereditary Chiefs Council wrote in a statement last October.

The court documents prepared by Environment Canada say that more than a year before the Haida went ahead with the experiment, on March 22, 2011, a senior government official, Linda Porebski, told a Haida group that the HSRC plan would be considered illegal dumping without a permit. None was granted.

"In my opinion this project does not qualify as legitimate scientific research," Porebski said. [more]

Special Report: Experimental climate fixes stir hopes, fears, lawyers

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