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.
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.
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.
"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."