A tantalizing dream that the increasingly barren seas can be made whole again is behind a bold – and some might say crazy – "geo-engineering" experiment that unfolded on Canada's West Coast this summer, when an impoverished native village paid to have 100 tonnes of iron sulphate sprinkled on the ocean.
Old Massett, a small British Columbia community of 700 people located on the windswept north coast of Haida Gwaii, spent $2.5-million on the project, aimed at simulating the growth of plankton as a way to increase the number of salmon in the area.
The move has alarmed critics, who say the experiment could have dire environmental consequences.
"We have set off on a path to bring life back to the North Pacific," insists John Disney, economic development officer with the Old Massett Village Council.
The community, he says, got involved in the project because a generation ago there was no unemployment in Old Massett, and almost every family had someone working in the commercial salmon fishery. Today the unemployment rate sits at a staggering 70 per cent – and the local rivers that were once full of spawning salmon in the fall are largely empty of fish.
The community bought into the vision of California businessman Russ George, who believes it is possible to simultaneously combat global warming and heal the sick seas by mixing iron with water.
More iron in the water, the theory goes, would promote the growth of more plankton, which could revitalize food chains that support everything from herring to whales. At the same time the proliferating clouds of plankton can suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help cool the planet.
Mr. Disney says his village has a long history with Mr. George, who a decade ago helped the community restoring forest land devastated by logging activity. Now Old Massett has teamed up with Mr. George again – this time hoping to grow a forest of plankton, 200 nautical miles off the West Coast of Haida Gwaii.
"The community put their food and clothing money on the line to do this. That's what it meant to them," Mr. Disney says. "They are losing the salmon and that's a fundamental foundation block of their culture, and there's nothing you can threaten the Haida community with more than to say you are not going to have any more salmon."
The village used a reserve fund to pay for the project and is hoping it can recover its investment through carbon trading, and through harvesting a revived salmon run.
Mr. Disney says the results from the ocean dump that took place this summer has been positive and they want to do the same thing next year if funding can be found.
The iron sulphate, a material as finely ground as flour, was dumped in a large ocean eddy that circulated that material over about 10,000 square kilometres.
Plankton began to flourish almost immediately and salmon, tuna, whales and dolphins were soon attracted to the area, he says.
"We created life where there wasn't any. Where there was a blank bit of ocean," Mr. Disney says.
But Karen Wristen, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, says the experiment is worrying.
"It's extremely alarming," she says. "It's a very short-term strategy with absolutely no scientific underpinning."
Timothy Parsons, a fisheries scientist and professor emeritus at the University of B.C., says satellite images show the project did stimulate a huge plankton bloom, but it is too soon to tell if that will boost salmon stocks.
"It could work," he says of the experiment, noting that twice in the past volcanic eruptions have spread iron-rich dust clouds over the Gulf of Alaska, stimulating plankton and leading to bumper salmon runs.
He says, however, there are also reasons to be concerned.
"Well, it could backfire," he says, noting that large plankton blooms could sink, causing dead zones in the ocean.
Villy Christensen, a professor at the University of B.C. Fisheries Centre, says there are many lingering questions about the project.
"I do not see scientific justification for assuming that a short-lived increase in productivity will have any beneficial impact on salmon, and I would be extremely concerned about the ecological consequences if this was turned into a longer-term operation," he says in an e-mail.