The Pacific’s Salmon Are Back — Thank Human Ingenuity

by Robert Zubrin
Geoengineering could turn our long-barren oceans into a bounty.

In 2012, the British Columbia–based Native American Haida tribe launched an effort to restore the salmon fishery that has provided much of their livelihood for centuries. Acting collectively, the Haida voted to form the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, financed it with $2.5 million of their own savings, and used it to support the efforts of American scientist-entrepreneur Russ George to demonstrate the feasibility of open-sea mariculture — in this case, the distribution of 120 tons of iron sulfate into the northeast Pacific to stimulate a phytoplankton bloom which in turn would provide ample food for baby salmon.

The verdict is now in on this highly controversial experiment: It worked.

In fact it has been a stunningly over-the-top success. This year, the number of salmon caught in the northeast Pacific more than quadrupled, going from 50 million to 226 million. In the Fraser River, which only once before in history had a salmon run greater than 25 million fish (about 45 million in 2010), the number of salmon increased to 72 million.

George writes:

The fish really came back this fall, a year following our 2012 ocean pasture restoration in the NE Pacific. The wonderful heartening news is they came back in tremendous numbers, more than in all of recorded history in many regions such as SE Alaska nearest to our ocean restoration project location.

Now it is being reported that everywhere from Alaska to the lower 48, baby salmon that swam out to sea, instead of mostly starving were treated to a feast on newly vibrant ocean pastures where once they could neither thrive nor survive. They grew and grew and before too long they swam back to our rivers a hundred million strong.

The SE Alaska Pink catch in the fall of 2013 was a stunning  226.3 million fish. This when a high number of 50 million fish were expected. Those extra ocean pasture fed fish came back because their pasture was enjoying the richest plankton blooms ever, thanks to me a[nd] 11 shipmates and our work in the summer of 2012. IT JUST WORKS.

In addition to producing salmon, this extraordinary experiment has yielded a huge amount of data. Within a few months after the ocean-fertilizing operation, NASA satellite images taken from orbit showed a powerful growth of phytoplankton in the waters that received the Haida’s iron. It is now clear that, as hoped, these did indeed serve as a food source for zooplankton, which in turn provided nourishment for multitudes of young salmon, thereby restoring the depleted fishery and providing abundant food for larger fish and sea mammals. In addition, since those diatoms that were not eaten went to the bottom, a large amount of carbon dioxide was sequestered in their calcium carbonate shells.

Native Americans bringing back the salmon and preserving their way of life, while combating global warming: One would think that environmentalists would be very pleased.

One would be very wrong. Far from receiving applause for their initiative, the Haida and Mr. George have become the target of rage aimed from every corner of the community seeking to use global warming as a pretext for curtailing human freedom.

“It appears to be a blatant violation of two international resolutions,” Kristina Gjerde, a senior high-seas adviser for the International Union for Conservation of Nature told the Guardian. “Even the placement of iron particles into the ocean, whether for carbon sequestration or fish replenishment, should not take place, unless it is assessed and found to be legitimate scientific research without commercial motivation. This does not appear to even have had the guise of legitimate scientific research.”

Silvia Ribeiro, of the international anti-technology watchdog ETC Group, also voiced her horror at any development that might allow humanity to escape from the need for carbon rationing. “It is now more urgent than ever that governments unequivocally ban such open-air geoengineering experiments,” she said. “They are a dangerous distraction providing governments and industry with an excuse to avoid reducing fossil-fuel emissions.”

Writing in the New York Times in 2012, Naomi Klein, the author of a forthcoming book on “how the climate crisis can spur economic and political transformation,” made clear the antihuman bias underlying the Haida’s critics. Klein reported that while vacationing on the coast of Canada’s British Columbia, in a place she had visited for the past 20 years, she was thrilled by the unprecedented sighting of a group of orcas. At first, “it felt like a miracle.” But then she was struck by a disturbing thought:

If Mr. George’s account of the mission is to believed, his actions created an algae bloom in an area half of the size of Massachusetts that attracted a huge array of aquatic life, including whales that could be ‘counted by the score.’ . . . I began to wonder: could it be that the orcas I saw were on the way to the all you can eat seafood buffet that had descended on Mr. George’s bloom? The possibility . . . provides a glimpse into the disturbing repercussions of geoengineering: once we start deliberately interfering with the earth’s climate systems — whether by dimming the sun or fertilizing the seas — all natural events can begin to take on an unnatural tinge. . . . a presence that felt like a miraculous gift suddenly feels sinister, as if all of nature were being manipulated behind the scenes.

This is a remarkable passage. Previously, environmentalists objected to human actions that harmed whales. But now, human actions that help whales also evoke horror. Clearly, it’s not about whales at all. It’s about prohibiting human activity, which is seen as intrinsically evil and therefore in need of constraint regardless of its content or intent.

Responding to these and similar antihuman ravings, the Canadian government went so far as to send gun-toting flak-vest-armored Environment Canada agents to raid the headquarters of the offices of the HSRC. George has been forced to resign the presidency of the corporation, as the desperate proponents of carbon rationing and fishing restriction scream for his head.

But the salmon are back.

Contrary to those who have denounced the experiment as reckless, its probable success was predicted in advance by leading fisheries scientists. “While I agree that the procedure was scientifically hasty and controversial, the purpose of enhancing salmon returns by increasing plankton production has considerable justification,” Timothy Parsons, professor emeritus of fisheries science at the University of British Columbia, told the Vancouver Sun in 2012. According to Parsons, the waters of the Gulf of Alaska are so nutrient-poor they are a “virtual desert dominated by jellyfish.” But iron-rich volcanic dust stimulates growth of diatoms, a form of algae that he describes as “the clover of the sea.” As a result, volcanic eruptions over the Gulf of Alaska in 1958 and 2008 “both resulted in enormous sockeye salmon returns.”

Unfortunately, while the potential of open-sea mariculture has been known for decades, experiments by established agencies that would validate the concept and lead to its commercialization have been blocked at every turn by regulators, who deemed such efforts at oceanic fertilization to be possible violations of U.N. protocols banning marine dumping. It took the daring George-Haida team to jump past the regulatory quagmire and break the impasse.

The George-Haida experiment is of world-historical significance. Starting as a few bands of hunter-gatherers, humanity expanded the food resources afforded by the land a thousandfold through the development of agriculture. In recent decades, the bounty from the sea has also been increased through rapid expansion of aquaculture, which now supplies about half our fish. Without these advances, our modern global civilization of 7 billion people would not be possible.

But aquaculture makes use only of enclosed waters, and commercial fisheries remain limited to the coasts, upwelling areas, and other small portions of the ocean that have sufficient nutrients to be naturally productive. The vast majority of the ocean, and thus the earth, remains a desert. The development of open-sea mariculture could change this radically, creating vast new food resources for both humanity and wildlife. Furthermore, just as increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have accelerated the rate of plant growth on land (by 14 percent since 1958, according to NASA satellite data), so increased levels of carbon dioxide in the ocean could lead to a massive expansion of flourishing sea life, provided that humans make the missing critical trace elements needed for life available across the vast expanse of the oceans.

The point deserves emphasis. The advent of higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere has been a great boon for the terrestrial biosphere, accelerating the rate of growth of both wild and domestic plants and thereby expanding the food base supporting humans and land animals of every type. Ignoring this, the carbophobes point to the ocean instead, saying that increased levels of carbon dioxide not exploited by biology could lead to acidification. By making the currently barren oceans fertile, however, mariculture would transform this putative problem into an extraordinary opportunity.

Which is precisely why those demanding restraints on carbon emissions and restrictions on fisheries hate mariculture. They hate it for the same reason those demanding constraints in the name of allegedly limited energy resources hate nuclear power. They hate it because it solves a problem they need unsolved.

The ultimate question comes down to this: Are humans creators or destroyers? If it is accepted that we are simply agents of destruction, consuming or ruining resources that existed before we came, then it follows that human activities, numbers, and liberties must be severely constrained and that someone must be empowered to do the constraining. On the other hand, if it is understood that humanity is fundamentally a creative force, that we invent resources and improve the world — unleashing abundance, lighting the night, ridding continents of pestilence, and bringing barren oceans to life — then it becomes clear that the essential mission of government is not to limit liberty, but to defend it at all costs.

By advancing the case for humanity, the Haida have rendered us all a signal service.

Happy Earth Day!

— Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Energy, a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy, and the author of Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil. The paperback edition of his newest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism was recently published by Encounter Books.