Australia is pressing for a ban on geoengineering the oceans with iron sulfate, a process which came to prominence last year after an attempt was made to augment salmon stocks off the Canadian Pacific coast by adding chemicals to ocean waters.
Australia is pushing for an amendment to the London Protocol on Marine Pollution and Dumping at Sea which would introduce a complete prohibition on the practice of fertilizing the oceans without scientific justification, the Australian government announced Thursday.
Pressure for a ban stems from the practice of what, Australia claims, is the unproven technique of trying to geoengineer the oceans by dumping iron into the seas to counter the effects of anthropomorphic (man-made) climate change. This practice, sometimes termed “ocean fertilization” has been proposed as a method of increasing carbon dioxide absorption by the oceans and improving fish stocks.
The controversy stems from the actions of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, run by a US entrepreneur, which, in 2012, dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulfate, along with iron oxide and iron dust, into the ocean off British Columbia. The company claimed it wanted to encourage the numbers of phytoplankton in the ocean, the theory being that more abundant plankton would mean an increase in salmon numbers. The intention was to benefit an indigenous village, heavily reliant on salmon fisheries, on the Haida Gwai islands (the Queen Charlotte archipelago) off the coast of BC.
Phytoplanktons are microscopic plant-like organisms forming the base layer of the marine food chain. They’re recognized as playing a key role in removing carbon dioxide from oceans. After a brief life, the remains of dead phytoplankton sink to the ocean floor as sediment.
The Haida Gwai dumping was roundly condemned by environmentalists. It resulted in Canada being in the unenviable position of lifting the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) "Dodo Award" for 2012. The Dodo Award is given to countries judged by the CBD as having “failed to evolve" and whose actions are said to have contributed to loss of biodiversity, rather than prevented it.
The 2012 incident of dumping off Canada’s Pacific coast was condemned by parties to the existing London Protocol. Earlier, in 2009, the scientific journal Nature reported on a study casting doubt on the whole concept of ocean fertilization. According to Nature, Hein de Baar, an oceanographer at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research in Texel, said, “Ocean iron fertilization is simply no longer to be taken as a viable option for mitigation of the CO2 problem.”
The problem is that the long term effects of fertilization of phytoplankton are unknown. The 1996 London Protocol to guard against marine pollution, which amended the earlier 1972 convention — to give it its full title the “Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter 1972 and 1996” — does not go far enough says the Australian government.
Australia, supported by Nigeria and South Korea, wants to introduce a restrictive amendment to the London Protocol which would outlaw all commercial fertilizer dumping in the oceans. Speaking in support of the move, Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke, reports the Sydney Morning Herald, said, “The amendment aims to establish a binding regulation on ocean fertilization. It prohibits commercial fertilization activities seas while allowing legitimate scientific research to identify potential benefits."
Mr. Burke also cited the potential risks of iron sulfate dumping triggering toxic algal blooms and eutrophication of the oceans — the process whereby a body of water becomes enriched with dissolved nutrients stimulating the growth of aquatic plant life. It usually results in the depletion of dissolved oxygen and eutrophication almost always has disastrous consequences for fish stocks.
Australia’s proposed amendment banning ocean fertilization by geoengineering is due to be considered when representatives of signatory nations next meet to discuss updating the London Protocol in October 2013.