Unintended consequences: Algal bloom.Australia has launched a bid to stop the commercial use of a controversial ”geoengineering” technique that involves dumping iron into the ocean in a bid to counter the effects of man-made climate change.
The practice – known as ocean fertilisation – is proposed as a way to increase carbon dioxide absorption in the ocean and of boosting fish stocks. It rose to prominence last year when a US entrepreneur released 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into Canadian waters in a bid to increase salmon numbers for an indigenous village.
In response, Australia has joined South Korea and Nigeria in attempting to ban commercial ocean geoengineering projects by moving a legally binding amendment to the London Protocol – an international treaty countering dumping-related ocean pollution.
But the draft amendment would still allow countries to grant permits for legitimate scientific ocean fertilisation research. The amendment will be discussed at a meeting in October.
By dumping concentrated iron loads into some parts of the ocean scientists say phytoplankton – microscopic plants – could be made more productive.
University of Tasmania Associate Professor Peter Strutton said the increased phytoplankton would absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When the phytoplankton dies it sinks to the bottom of the ocean taking some carbon dioxide with it.
”It might take more CO2 out of the atmosphere, make the surface ocean more productive – which might help feed more fish – and perhaps store more carbon on the bottom of the ocean in sediments,” Associate Professor Strutton said.
But ocean fertilisation could also have unintended consequences, such as causing damaging toxic algae blooms, increasing ocean acidification, and depleting oxygen in deep waters. So far there have been more than a dozen formal scientific trials with mixed results.
Environment Minister Tony Burke said the London Protocol had been concerned about the issue for some time and had adopted a voluntary resolution in 2008 to stop commercial ocean fertilisation.
”Adoption of Australia’s proposed amendment would mean that the 42 parties to the London Protocol would take a precautionary approach while more research is undertaken,” he said.
University of NSW international law expert Professor Rosemary Rayfuse said the voluntary ban had not stopped unapproved projects and Australia’s legally binding motion was an important first step.
”It is absolutely essential, but it is not enough if the states that are party to the London Protocol do not then enact domestic legislation to enable them to take steps against these rogue commercial operators,” she said.
Speaking with the ABC’s Lateline last year, the man behind the unauthorised Canadian iron fertilisation project, Russ George, rejected calls to wait until international rules are in place. ”I don’t see that happening before the oceans die,” he said. ”The Royal Society of England came out a few years ago and said that by the year 2050 there’d be no harvestable fish left in the ocean. So I don’t think we have time.”
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