Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

UN questions ocean-seeding test project off coast of Haida Gwaii

Balance Rock, one of Haida Gwaii’s spiritual wonders left behind from the ice age, near the shores of ferry hotspot Skidegate on Oct. 3, 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A large-scale, ocean-fertilization experiment that took place off the west coast of Haida Gwaii this summer raises long-term environmental and legal questions, says a representative of a United Nations science agency.

"Our major concern is that the science is uncertain and that this seems to have been done without authority," Wendy Watson-Wright, assistant director general of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, said Tuesday.

Ms. Watson-Wright, a former assistant deputy minister with Fisheries and Oceans Canada who is now based in Paris, says the unsanctioned experiment appears to be in violation of international protocols designed to protect the marine environment.

Story continues below advertisement

But she said it is up to Canada to take action, not the UN or the International Maritime Organization, which oversees the London Convention and Protocol, an international agreement concerning ocean dumping and iron fertilization.

Environment Canada last week released a statement saying the experiment by the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, which dumped 100 tonnes of iron- sulphate mix into the sea in what has widely been condemned as a "rogue experiment," is under investigation.

John Disney, a spokesman for the group, has said that legal opinions were sought before the experiment was undertaken, and no international laws were broken.

But Ms. Watson-Wright disagrees.

"I think there's a belief that they have [broken international protocols]. But I think that that's all being worked out right now," she said. "I believe this was in international waters ... [so] the parties to the London Convention and Protocol and the secretariat of the International Maritime Organization would be heavily involved."

The experiment, designed by controversial California businessman Russ George, was intended to stimulate plankton growth over a huge area of ocean as a way to revive salmon runs, and to illustrate the potential for sucking carbon out of the atmosphere.

Ocean fertilization has long been seen as a potential way to combat global warming – and to generate the sale of carbon credits. But it is also regarded as an area of research that comes with high risks to the environment, because there are concerns it could create oxygen dead zones in the ocean.

Story continues below advertisement

Ms. Watson-Wright said there have been about a dozen ocean fertilization experiments around the world, but all have been discussed internationally in advance and were relatively small in scale.

By contrast, the Haida Gwaii experiment seemed to come out of nowhere and was of a much larger scale, reportedly triggering a bloom over 10,000 to 35,000 square kilometres.

"The most that's been used in the past has been 10 tonnes [of iron]. This is 100 tonnes. To my knowledge, nobody knew about this [in advance]. We certainly didn't know about it. In all the other experiments, yes, the scientific community knew," she said.

Ms. Watson-Wright said she first learned of it through the media. Her immediate reaction?

"It was, 'Oh, my. This is very concerning. I saw it and whoa!'"

The regulation of ocean fertilization is on the agenda for an International Maritime Organization convention next week, and Ms. Watson-Wright said the Haida experiment will obviously be top of mind for delegates.

Story continues below advertisement

"It's done now," she said of the dumping of iron sulphate off Canada's West Coast. "We can't take it back out. But I think it's important to have the global community engaged in this."

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.