On Monday April 3, an article entitled "A Scientific Experiment: Sowing the Sea Could Help Increase Fish Stocks" was published in El Mercurio newspaper, reporting on a project of the Canadian company Oceaneos which aims at fertilizing waters off the coasts of Chile and Peru with iron to increase fish stocks.
Oceaneos is currently running a campaign to convince the Chilean government to implement this project, extremely profitable for the company, based on the results of experiments conducted by the international scientific community. The experts working at the Millennium Institute of Oceanography (IMO) consider that iron is a fundamental element for phytoplankton because of its position at the base of the food chain of fish. However, research conducted over the last 25 years has demonstrated a lack of this element in some parts of the ocean and it has been proven that adding iron increases the amount of phytoplankton in some zones.
Nevertheless, IMO researchers were emphatic: "To date, the scientific evidence is not conclusive enough for us to support or reject the idea of artificially fertilizing the ocean for eco-engineering purposes such as mitigating the increase in atmospheric CO2 or increasing fish stocks. Yet the international consensus is that artificial fertilization of the ocean should be banned for the time being.”
Regarding this project, IMO scientists are convinced that international agreements should be taken into account. "The signing parties of the 1972 London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution, an international agreement to which Chile adheres, reiterated in 2012 that experiments with purely scientific objectives are the only exception to this prohibition, because they are necessary to increase our knowledge of the possible effects of commercial ocean fertilization."
One of the greatest risks associated with marine fertilization is a possible increase in the amount of Pseudo-nitzschia, a harmful micro-alga producing a neurotoxin called domoic acid. Furthermore, as a result of the artificial addition of iron, biomass in sub-surface waters could decompose after algal bloom, critically lowering oxygen levels and negatively affecting crustaceans and mollusks.
In response to Oceaneos’ idea of fertilizing waters off the coasts of Chile and Peru, IMO experts want to emphasize that coastal waters already have enough iron. "These kinds of experiments will end up being nothing but a waste of our funds." In addition, Chile already has to deal with the problems of subsurface waters naturally low in oxygen and the bloom of toxic algae, which have caused strandings by trapping and suffocating fish and invertebrates. This measure could also pose risks to tourism, aquaculture, artisanal fishing and even to human life.
Finally, it is important to mention that in 2012 the private company Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation (HSRC) decided to add iron to waters around the archipelago where the Haida people live, off the west coast of North America, with the purpose of increasing iron production. However, the company did not obtain the necessary permits, and a judicial investigation is currently being conducted in Canada.
Although Oceaneos denies having direct connections to HSRC, Jason MacNamee, director of HSRC at the time of the illegal fertilization, was also director of Oceaneos in 2016.
Oceaneos is only proposing an experimental stage, without specifying its characteristics. This situation is cause for concern because a foreign company that is not entirely familiar with local conditions and needs may well not be properly prepared to assess the risks to marine life and human health posed by this fertilization, and to effectively monitor its real effects.
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