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British Columbia Ocean fertilization experiment loses in B.C. court; charges now likely

People walk past a giant salmon statue in Sandspit, B.C., on Moresby Island in Haida Gwaii on Wednesday August 14, 2013.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The organization behind a controversial ocean-fertilization experiment off the coast of British Columbia could face up to 10 charges for environmental violations after losing a court bid that would have brought an end to the investigation.

The Haida Salmon Restoration Corp. caused waves around the world in July, 2012, when it dumped more than 100 metric tonnes of iron into the ocean near Haida Gwaii, hoping it would increase salmon returns and produce profits from carbon capture.

The practice is unproven. International scientists condemned the unsanctioned experiment at a United Nations meeting and the federal environment minister announced an investigation into what he called "rogue science."

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According to court documents, last March an Environment Canada investigator obtained three search warrants for the corporation's offices, the offices of F.A.S. Seafood Producers and the vessel "Ocean Pearl," from which the iron was dumped.

The corporation, in turn, filed an application with B.C. Supreme Court arguing its activities were not illegal and asked the judge to either set aside the search warrants or declare the alleged offences unenforceable under Canadian law.

It also sought an injunction preventing the investigator from taking any further steps on the matter.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Peter Voith dismissed the application, saying the issues in the case are best dealt with all at once at trial.

"(Environment Canada) continues to investigate the offences in question and it has yet to submit a report to Crown counsel for charge approval," Voith wrote in a ruling recently posted on the court website.

Neither Environment Canada nor Haida Salmon Restoration responded to requests for comment.

The experiment involved dumping iron dust, iron sulfate fertilizer and iron oxide over an area of about one square kilometre, 300 kilometres west of Haida Gwaii.

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Supporters believe the iron causes a phytoplankton bloom, which acts as a natural sponge for carbon from the atmosphere.

The proponents also hoped the plankton would feed young salmon, bolstering the number that would return to spawn in B.C.'s freshwater rivers and creeks.

The information to obtain the search warrants said there were several exchanges between them and Environment Canada prior to the dumping.

"In these exchanges Environment Canada representatives explained their legal position and requirements and were told by the parties identified above that (the Canadian Environmental Protection Act) did not, for various reasons, pertain and that the parties were satisfied, based on their own inquiries, that their activities were legal," the judge wrote.

Canada is a signatory to several voluntary and mandatory international moratoriums on ocean dumping and specifically on iron fertilization. A regulatory regime to address exactly the kind of incident that took place off Haida Gwaii is currently being negotiated by UN member nations.

Lawyers for the Haida Salmon Restoration argued that despite the intention of any international protocols or negotiations there was no violation of Canadian law.

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Environment Canada said there was, and it applies even if the dumping takes place outside Canadian territorial waters.

"(It) appeared to have been undertaken, at least in part, with an eye to profit or financial gain and, in particular, the generation and sale of carbon credits," Voith wrote.

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